Friday, 15 May 2015

Reading the Classics: Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

I have to confess to never having read Dr Zhivago before - nor even seen the film.

Most people I mention this to are incredulous - at least as far as the film is concerned. Never swooned over Omar Sharif? Longed to be Julie Christie? Been swept away by the rousing music and panoramic landscapes? Even my husband of 23 years is now looking at me in a new - and rather quizzical - light.

But I don't want to see the film until I've read the book, you see.

So when we picked it as our next book club choice, I was relieved to finally have an unassailable reason to get to grips with Boris Pasternak's 1957 classic of Russian literature. A quick consultation on Twitter - the kind of instant discussion that it's made for - decided the best choice of translation, with the original Hayward/Harari version winning out over the more recent Pevear/Volokhonsky, which Pasternak's niece took such a dislike to.

Dr Zhivago begins in Imperial Russia in 1903, with the funeral of Yury Zhivago's mother. The boy's father has long been absent, so Yury is first taken in by his uncle Kolya, before settling down with the Gromekos in Moscow. He becomes close to Tonya, the daughter of the family, soon to be his wife. Then, against a background of widespread civil unrest and hardship, he first sets eyes on Lara.

Her desperate mother is being treated in a Moscow hotel and Lara is asleep in an armchair, until disturbed by the family lawyer Komarovsky:
Not a word passed their lips, only their eyes met. But the understanding between them had a terrifying quality of black magic, as if he were the master of a puppet show and she were a puppet obedient to his every gesture. 
A tired smile puckered her eyes and loosened her lips, but in answer to his amused glance, she gave him a sly wink of complicity. Both of them were pleased that it had all ended so well - their secret was safe and Madame Guishar's attempted suicide had failed.
Yura devoured them with his eyes. From the half darkness of the lobby where no one saw him he stared unblinking into the circle of lamplight. The scene between the captive girl and her master was both incommunicably mysterious and shamelessly frank. New and conflicting feelings crowded painfully in Yura's heart.
Lara goes to great lengths to escape Komarovsky's malevolent hold over her - marrying Pasha Antipov, her childhood friend, and moving far from Moscow. But her path is destined to cross Yury's again. After the outbreak of the First World War, she trains to be a nurse and is stationed in the town where he is now a qualified doctor in the ranks of the army. At the height of the revolution, they part only for fate to bring them together once again, forcing Yury to face up to the conflict of his love for both Lara and his wife and family.

The narrative ranges over thousands of miles - usually by epic train journey. Yet there are connections within connections within connections. Lara can never fully free herself from Komarovsky, who was also complicit in the death of Yury's father. Yury has more than one encounter with Lara's husband in his various incarnations. The book contains a huge and widely dispersed cast of characters - from Tiverzin the trade unionist in Moscow to Liberius, leader of the Forest Brotherhood - but they are often related to each other and make such breezily coincidental reappearances, that at times they seem more like the inhabitants of a small town, than the vast, empty swathes of revolutionary Russia.

And yet, this is the point; Pasternak places his characters where he can use them best to capture momentous events. So Yury tells Lara that
the whole of Russia has had its roof torn off, and you and I and everyone else are out in the open! 
Back in Moscow, he witnesses the coming of this revolutionary new order for himself when, in the midst of a snowstorm, he buys a paper from a newsboy:
Yury stopped under a street light to read the headlines. The paper was a late extra printed, on one side only; it gave the official announcement from Petersburg that a Soviet of People's Commissars had been formed and that Soviet power and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat were established in Russia...
The blizzard slashed at Yury's eyes and covered the printed page with a grey, rustling, snowy gruel but it was not the snowstorm that prevented Yury from reading. He was shaken and overwhelmed by the greatness of the moment and the thought of its significance for centuries to come.
That is not to say the novel isn't rich in characterisation. Yury is described as not especially good-looking, but with a lively intelligence about him. He's a poet as well as a doctor, thinker and philosopher who's never willing to accept an opinion for the sake of expedience. When he and his family come under suspicion for belonging to the old ruling classes, they escape to Tonya's former family estate in the Ural mountains and there he pours his thoughts into an exquisite diary which breaks off all too abruptly.

Lara is beautiful but enigmatic. Her relationship with Komarovsky is never fully explained, but is easy to speculate about. And he certainly has a hand in her fate throughout the novel, influencing her from first to last. But it is her love for Yury that changes her world as much as his:
They loved each other greatly. Most people experience love, without noticing that there is anything remarkable about it. 
To them - and this made them unusual - the moments when passion visited their doomed human existence like a breath of timelessness were moments of revelation, of ever greater understanding of life and of themselves.
Such exquisite language, such glimpses into the human soul, reward all the grappling with names, patronymics and diminutives that the book demands. Many names have resonances which can’t be translated; the word 'zhiv' (alive, living) is clear in Zhivago, while Komarovsky contains the Russian for mosquito.

Having smuggled the novel out of the Soviet Union and published it in Italy, Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, but was forced to decline it by the Communist state which objected to his interpretation of their rise to power. And yet, Dr Zhivago is not only a love story on a personal level, but also a tribute to Mother Russia with all her flaws.

In this way, I'm told, it's different from the film which concentrates much more on the love triangle between Yuri, Tonya and Lara. Now that I've read the book, I can finally watch it myself and find out.

Dr Zhivago (translated by Max Hayward and Manya Harari) is published in the UK by Vintage Classics. Photos courtesy of Amazon and the Guardian.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Book Review and Reading Group Guide: A Song For Issy Bradley by Carys Bray

Since its publication in 2014, Carys Bray's novel of one family's struggle to come to terms with their heart-breaking loss has been shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize. It's now just out in paperback and has been chosen as one of the Richard and Judy Book Club's 2015 Summer Reads (available through W H Smith).

So, if you haven't read it yet and need to know why you should, here's my review of A Song For Issy Bradley from June 2014. It's a great choice for discussion too, so at the end of my post I've included a reading group guide, provided by those lovely folk at Windmill Books.

A Song For Issy Bradley is a rare book, one with such emotional honesty that you feel it must have been ripped straight from the heart of its author and transplanted onto the page.

The Bradleys could be any other ordinary family living in the north-west of England - but they're not. They're Mormons and Ian, husband of Claire and father of the four Bradley children, is a Bishop so dedicated to his flock that he misses his son Jacob's seventh birthday party. Claire is preoccupied with preparations for the day and the older two children each have their own worries; seventeen-year-old Zippy thinks she's in love and son Alma would rather be playing football. Nobody notices little Issy, spiralling into the clutches of an illness that's far beyond the reach of a hurried dose of Calpol.

The death of a child can never be an easy subject to read or write about, but in Carys Bray's hands it becomes a sensitive and profound exploration of bereavement, unfolding from the perspective of each member of the Bradley family as they struggle to come to terms with guilt and loss. Claire begins to question the very basis of her faith which was never as strong as her husband's, while Ian sees death as a temporary parting until the family can be reunited in the Celestial Kingdom. Zippy and Alma are already questioning a world where men are expected to go on a mission to convert non-believers and women to marry and have children. But it is young Jacob, steeped in the power of miracles both great and small, who often touches the heart most of all:
Dad said he would understand it better when he was older. But Jacob understood something right then. If he wanted Issy back, he was going to have to make it happen himself.
From the very first page, it's clear that A Song For Issy Bradley is a novel which will force you to face some of your deepest fears and, in doing so, move you to tears. It's enhanced by an elegantly detailed sense of place, as when Claire walks along the beach near her home:
The track is sandier now, damp and sticky, gritty, like cake mix. It's stamped with a network of prints. There are wide tide-marks from cockling vehicles and thinner tracks from bicycles. There are footprints, paw prints and birds' prints, some tiny, others surprisingly large, pronged like windmill blades. As she continues, the texture of the sand changes; it is speckled with a mosaic of broken shell pieces which draw her towards the sea like a trail of breadcrumbs. 
What I wasn't expecting is that just as your tears are in danger of becoming a river, there's laughter to stem the flow. The Bradley family are contemporary, believable and so real that you begin to inhabit their characters. You feel Alma's frustration as he's expected to clean the chapel toilets on a Saturday afternoon rather than go to football training and touch Zippy's horror when a photograph of herself in her Mum's wedding dress ends up on Facebook. Most of all, you wish you could reach out and give Jacob a big hug, while at the same time suppressing a smile as his attempts at the miraculous go awry.

In this, her debut novel, Carys Bray writes about the Mormon church with an eye for the everyday and a fascinating insider's knowledge, having been born, brought up and married in the faith. If, like Ian, you accept its beliefs without question, there's clearly comfort in this certainty, but there's also no allowance for a doubt like Claire's nor for a way of mourning which deviates from the prescribed path. You can sense the restriction in adhering to doctrines at such variance with secular society, especially for teenagers like Alma and Zippy, who just want to fit in with their friends.

Carys and her husband lost one of their own children as the result of an inherited metabolic disease, a tragedy which brings a searing truthfulness to her writing. Yet, although she and her family have now left the Mormon church, her often forensic depiction of its members and routines still retains a great deal of sympathy.

From its cover to its final page, A Song For Issy Bradley is a beautifully balanced and delicately expressed novel both inside and out. Through tears and laughter, there is great courage in this miraculous book and it is this which, despite the depths of one family's devastation, makes it such an ultimately warm and uplifting read.

Reading Group Questions

1. Did you enjoy A Song for Issy Bradley? How did you feel reading it – amused, sad, disturbed, confused?

2. Describe the main characters – personality traits, motivations, inner qualities

  • Why do the characters do what they do?
  • Are their actions justified?
  • Describe the dynamics between the members of the family
  • How has the past shaped their lives?
  • Do you admire or disapprove of them?
  • Do they remind you of people you know?

3. Do the main characters change by the end of the book? Do they grow or mature? Do they learn something about themselves and how the world works?

4. What aspects of the plot did you find engaging – what interested you the most?

5. Talk about the book’s structure. Did you like reading the story from the perspectives of each member of the family? Why might Carys have chosen to tell the story the way she did – and what difference did it make in the way you read or understood it?

6. What themes does the book explore?

7. What passages strike you as insightful, even profound? Is there a particular piece of dialogue that’s funny or poignant or that encapsulates a character?

8. Is the ending satisfying? If so, why? If not, why not ... and how would you change it?

9. If you could ask Carys a question, what would you ask?

10. Has this novel changed you – broadened your perspective? Have you learned something new or been exposed to different ideas about people or a certain part of the world?

A Song For Issy Bradley was published in paperback in the UK on 7th May 2015 and is available here as one of the titles in the Richard and Judy Book Club 2015 Summer Reads. Many thanks to Windmill Books for my copy and for supplying the reading group guide.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Theatre Review: Casting The Runes at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for the Public Reviews

Robert Lloyd Parry tingles the spine in a one-man retelling of two chilling tales from the pen of ghost story writer extraordinaire M R James.
Seated in a wing-backed chair with a single candle lighting the darkness and a whisky decanter beside him on a table scattered with papers, Lloyd Parry is the image of the scholarly antiquarian author who first performed the stories to amuse his Cambridge friends in the years leading up to World War One.
Without any preamble, he leaps straight into a fluent and fast-paced delivery of the first story of the evening, the eponymous Casting the Runes. The self-styled Abbot of Lufford, a certain Mr Karswell, does not take kindly to being overlooked in academic circles for his paper concerning the truth about alchemy.
When Mr Dunning, the man who rejected Karswell’s work, experiences a series of increasingly sinister events which haunt his well-being, he seeks out the brother of John Harrington, a man who died in mysterious circumstances after writing a damning review of Karswell’s book on witchcraft. But, in uncovering the supernatural secret of Harrington’s demise, the pair begin to realise the full, vengeful horror of Dunning’s own predicament.
Lloyd Parry recounts his tale as if talking to old friends in the corner of his library; his word-perfect delivery is mesmerising. It’s eerily dark and, as his story tumbles forth, there are minimal changes to the lighting and no sound other than his voice. In this simple setting, he single-handedly holds the audience’s silent and rapt attention from the start.
If Casting the Runes is known for being the story upon which the 1957 horror film Night of the Demon is based, the second story is less familiar but equally riveting. The Residence at Whitminster is a tale of a peaceful English church and community overcome with strange happenings. There is the sacrifice of a cockerel called Hannibal and a room full of sawflies no bigger than an inch long – or could one of them grow to be the size of a man?
Once again, the dark magic of M R James’ story is magnified by Lloyd Parry’s telling, the ghosts created by what isn’t said and the power of your own imagination. We are warned in advance to expect moments of “pleasing terror” and this description is very apt; on leaving the theatre, there is a feeling of having been enjoyably enthralled, but still a desire to steer clear of dark shadows.
M R James is familiar ground for Lloyd Parry; the majority of his one-man shows feature the author’s stories and tap into a gothic preoccupation with the supernatural. By the evidence of Casting the Runes, it’s a spellbinding and winning combination which is earning him a well-deserved following.
Reviewed on 26th April 2015.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Theatre Review: Outside Mullingar at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was first written for The Public Reviews

The setting for Outside Mullingar is pinpointed by its American writer John Patrick Shanley to “a cattle and sheep farm outside Killucan” in Ireland. Inspired by the area where his cousin still lives, in the intimacy of the Ustinov, this sense of place becomes palpable. The atmospheric set, designed by Richard Kent, doubles as both the inside and outside of the rural location – a meticulously detailed unkempt country kitchen blending into a farm gate, barn wall and well-trodden, rain-soaked turf.
In the aftermath of a funeral, old-timers Tony Reilly and Aoife Muldoon share tea and memories across the kitchen table. Obsessed with their own mortality, they agree they too will be dead within a year and speculate about what will happen to their land. Carol Macready’s Aoife is devout and fatalistic – she has buried her husband that day and is certain to leave her farm to her daughter Rosemary. James Hayes as Tony is prickly and darkly critical; less sure about whether his son Anthony deserves to inherit. And then there’s the thorny issue of a symbolic strip of land owned by the Muldoons, which separates the Reilly farm from the road and prevents any easy sale to affluent American relatives.
The younger generation – now in middle age – are also bound to the blessings and burdens of the land but with different priorities, caught up in the aching romantic comedy of a love so slow burning it may never catch light. Attractive and spirited, Rosemary (Deirdre O’Kane) has turned away many suitors because of her yearning for Anthony (Owen McDonnell). But there’s a reason why the self-effacing Anthony has never married all these years, a solemnly sworn secret in the Reilly clan.
There are many beautifully observed moments with satisfying outcomes – the explanation for the Muldoons holding on to the disputed strip of land, Aoife’s Father Ted-like reason for not drinking from a glass, the lyrical losing and finding of Anthony’s dead mother’s ring. There are fine performances too, particularly from O’Kane as the feisty, increasingly embittered Rosemary who, after years of words unspoken, confronts Anthony in the riveting final scene. And Sam Yates’ direction brings out the change of pace with great poignancy, as Tony in ill-health eventually softens towards his son, recounting the story of his own slow-burn love for Anthony’s mother.
Outside Mullingar, which premiered in New York in January 2014, might not quite live up to the acclaim Shanley earned for his previous 2005 Pulitzer prize-winning play Doubt. At times, particularly in the opening sequence, it talks itself round in circles rather than propelling the story forwards. It’s occasionally difficult to believe that a girl as driven as Rosemary would have the patience or desire to throw away her youth for Anthony. And the reason for his reticence, once revealed, stretches credulity.
Yet, although it reaches out for and doesn't always fully grasp the profound, Outside Mullingar is a thoughtful, moving and often hilarious watch.
Runs until 16th May 2015 |Photo: Simon Annand

Monday, 27 April 2015

Theatre Review: Dear Lupin at the Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was first written for The Public Reviews

Over the course of twenty -five years, Sunday Times horse-racing correspondent Roger Mortimer wrote regularly to his wayward son Charlie, often in exasperation, but always with humour and affection. The collection of his letters, Dear Lupin – already a publishing sensation – has now been adapted for the stage by Michael Simkins, a two-hander starring the real-life pairing of father and son James and Jack Fox.
After a round of Mastermind which neatly fills in much of Roger’s background, the trials and tribulations of Charlie’s life from the age of fifteen to adulthood are explored through a mix of narration, excerpts from the letters and vignettes of pivotal moments. Whereas in the book, Roger’s correspondence is unanswered and our knowledge of his son gleaned primarily from reading between the lines, in this stage adaptation, more of Charlie himself is revealed; his comfortable upbringing and schooldays at Eton, his drink and drug-fuelled youth, misadventures in the Coldstream Guards, health problems and a haphazard series of jobs.
The humour of Roger’s original letters shines through. Charlie, nicknamed Lupin early on as a tribute to Mr Pooter’s feckless son in Diary of a Nobody, in danger of being expelled from Eton in 1967 is told; “You may think it mildly amusing to be caught poaching in Windsor Great Park; I would consider it more hilarious if you were not living on the knife edge.” His father criticises him for wearing his hair “like a 1923 typist” and admonishes: “Even allowing for the fact that you cannot yet tie a bow tie, a sweat rag coiled round your neck is a somewhat unattractive form of evening dress….”
James Fox inhabits the role of Roger comfortably, with all the familiarity of donning a much-loved tweed jacket, sharing wry in-jokes about his wife’s drinking habits and over-reliance on the microwave. Jack Fox, given the lion’s share of narration, still sparkles with a charming roguish vitality as Charlie. The work of being a believable father and son may already be done, but the two still convincingly convey the nuances of the relationship, the loving familial ties bound up in everyday impatience and insouciance, pride and despair.
The set has all the appearance of a second hand furniture salesroom, which it becomes in one episode of Charlie’s life, but reveals itself to be a heady mix of yesteryear and repository of memories – Roger’s desk and typewriter which he uses to write his letters, the panama hat he wears while typing them. Under Philip Franks’ direction it becomes an Eton classroom, an unlikely assault course in the Brecon Beacons, a brothel and a setting for an exuberant Elvis impersonation.
And yet, despite these interludes, because of the reliance on narration, there is an overall sense that this adaptation is a little too safe and one-paced. Although there are references to the passage of time, the characters don’t seem to reflect this in becoming significantly older or younger over the twenty-five year span. And, in introducing greater detail of Charlie’s life, there’s a commensurate need which isn’t met for more light to be thrown on the reasons behind his actions and their wider consequences.
There’s a moving conclusion as the health of both Mortimers begins to fail, and the humour remains steady to the last. For lovers of the book, though, it may seem that the stage version of Dear Lupin doesn’t provide enough new insights or quite coalesce into the sum of its parts. Yet it still provides an entertaining and affectionate perspective on the enduring strength of family ties – from the Foxes to the Mortimers – from one father and son to another.
Runs until Saturday 25th April 2015 | Photo: Manuel Harlan

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Theatre Review: The School for Scandal at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for The Public Reviews

Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory’s second production of the season is from Sheridan – not the first time the company has strayed outside its Shakespearean roots. Unexpectedly for SATTF regulars though, it’s this play, rather than its season companion Romeo and Juliet, which has the more familiar, possibly even conventional, feel.
Much of this is down to Andrew Hilton being back at the helm, having temporarily handed control to new young director Polina Kalinina. In The School for Scandal a measured clarity of text returns to replace Kalinina’s viscerally exciting but occasionally uneven interpretation of Romeo and Juliet; the plot of Sheridan’s comedy of manners masterpiece is delivered with all the verbal dexterity of a literary joust.
That London in 1777 was a scandalous mix of salons and soirées is reflected from the very beginning, as Lady Sneerwell (Julia Hills) and her associate Mr Snake (Paul Currier) gossip about the circumstances surrounding Sir Peter Teazle and his family. There’s plenty to speculate over; inveterate bachelor Sir Peter, recently married to a much younger wife, has acted as informal guardian to the two brothers Charles and Joseph Surface since their father died. Charles is impecuniously extravagant but good-hearted; Joseph is considered in polite society to be responsible and full of noble feeling, although it quickly becomes clear he’s anything but. Both are reliant on the benevolence of their absent uncle Sir Oliver Surface and, for very different reasons, are rivals for the hand of Sir Peter’s ward Maria.
The production is sumptuously costumed in the wigs, wide skirts and fine brocades of the period, although Dominic Power’s prologue and epilogue, adapted to feature mobile phones, social media and selfies, feel like an obviously signalled attempt to connect the play to the present day. Amusingly spoken by Byron Mondahl, it’s funny but unsubtle –  the sort of message that would be more satisfying for the audience to think of themselves.
The cast do a great job in bringing Sheridan’s potentially two-dimensional characters to life; Paapa Essiedu, Romeo in Kalinina’s production, shines again as the self-serving Joseph, plotting to marry Maria (Hannah Lee) for her fortune and leave Charles free for the designs of Lady Sneerwell. Essiedu distinctively delivers Sheridan’s eighteenth century lines with naturalistic modernity while Fiona Sheehan sparkles as the tittle-tattling busybody Mrs Candour. Daisy Whalley appears at home in the role of the coquettish and demanding young Lady Teazle while Christopher Bianchi’s comic timing and controlled outrage are perfect as her much put-upon husband Sir Peter.
Although tautly directed and glittering with wit and malicious asides, the play does start to feel long at over three hours. Fortunately, to relieve any flagging, the most entertaining moments arrive after the interval as Sir Oliver (Chris Garner), newly returned from the East Indies, dons a disguise to ascertain the true nature of his two nephews. The scene where Charles (Jack Wharrier) refuses to sell Sir Oliver his own portrait is hilariously delivered, as is the uncovering of Joseph’s secret liaison and duplicitous double-dealings in his library.
This is a undoubtedly a skilful and satisfying interpretation of Sheridan’s most famous scandal-mongering work, encapsulating the comedy and hinting at the tragedy that the power of words can bring. While it has you laughing from the start, it still leaves you with plenty to think about.
Runs until 9th May 2015 | Photo: Mark Douet

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Theatre Review: Frogs - The Rondo Theatre, Bath

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

The Ancient Greek god Dionysus went to hell and back. Now Hecate Theatre have taken his original subterranean quest and updated it for a modern audience.
According to Aristophanes, Greek tragedy was in decline after the death of the playwright Euripides, so Dionysus was sent from Mount Olympus down to Hades to bring him back. In Hecate Theatre’s Frogs, this journey has been comically adapted by writer Charles Scherer, with Dionysus now crossing the river Styx to arrange an unlikely showdown between William Shakespeare and Jane Austen, to determine which one is the greatest writer of all time.
The story is observed by a Greek chorus of frogs; Hecate Theatre’s five female members, daubed in green paint, ribbit and hop about a swampy landscape of rubbish, nets and the odd abandoned hub cap. In turn they transform into its main characters; Gemma Reynolds dons shades and a fur stole to become Dionysus, god of drama, while Hannah-Marie Chidwick becomes her sidekick slave Xanthias. Kate Mayne delivers a virtuoso performance as the cussedly no-nonsense boatman Charon, as well as Pluto, in charge of the Underworld, while Bella Fortune and Alice Chalk slug it out as Shakespeare and Austen respectively.
Programmed as part of the 2015 Bath Comedy Festival, this hour-long play fizzes with inventiveness and modern references, from Fifty Shades of Grey to zero hours contracts. Under Abbi Davey’s direction it gets off to a slightly slow start in establishing the potentially unfamiliar premise (perhaps an introduction could be given in the programme notes?), but really springs into life when the gnarled and grouchy Charon reluctantly agrees to transport the wine-swigging Dionysus and Xanthias across the Styx for a strictly set fee.
The contest is an energetically comedic centre-piece, with the initially reverential Austen turning on Shakespeare to put up a proper fight for the title of greatest writer. Shakespeare pompously dismisses her works as essentially plotless; her argument that too much happens in his plays (which he may not even have written) is supported by a very droll froggy re-enactment of some of his best known death scenes.
Designer Charlotte Cooke’s set deserves special mention, with credit being given in the programme for the number of video tapes destroyed in its creation. All in all, this is an endearing and fun family-friendly interpretation of one of the most ancient of classic tales.
Reviewed on 9th April 2015.