Tuesday 25 August 2020

Review by Robert Richardson of "Hamlet" starring Nicol Williamson and dir. Tony Richardson, Movie and Theatre Production at the Roundhouse, London, 1969

It was London in 1969. The fashion-led and pop music-centred frivolity of Swinging London (after The Beatles moved from Liverpool to the capital) had to some extent been supplanted by an “underground” influenced by the counterculture of San Francisco, but with its own distinctive twists of psychedelia and left wing or anarchist politics.

A production of Hamlet at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm began with considerable media attention, and this was focused on Marianne Faithfull playing Ophelia. She had scored several pop hits, the first, As Tears Go By, was written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and she was now in a relationship with Jagger: they were the popular culture power-couple of late 60s Britain.

The media frenzy continued, but the narrative changed. When the reviews began appearing, the big story was Nicol Williamson’s performance as Hamlet. It became clear this was very special and might be considered as one of the twentieth century’s most important interpretations of the role, ranking alongside Gielgud and Olivier.

Being described as sensational, it was, for sure, a hot ticket, and the details of how I came to see it are now somewhat vague. From the year, I think this is the explanation: at that time I was living very close to London and studying at a further education college, where I was also a member of an evening drama group. Our leader was George, a young English and Drama lecturer and recent Cambridge graduate. I am fairly sure it was George who acquired some tickets and took a small group of us to the Roundhouse. More certain is the impression made by Nicol Williamson’s incredible acting. Over fifty years later, it is something that remains with me.

I had already seen Laurence Olivier’s Oscar winning film of Hamlet, and the enduring and most iconic scene was for me, and I suspect for many others, the ‘To Be or Not to Be’ soliloquy, shot as a powerful Romantic pose accompanied by a dream like voice-over, luxurious in a poetry of indecision. If Olivier’s performance might be seen as one kind of measure, then Williamson took that measure and wilfully smashed it to pieces. Where Olivier was reflective, Williamson was dynamic. His performance, though, was beyond the merely energetic, it was manic. As a broad outline, I often describe it as playing Hamlet as a nervous wreck. Hamlet’s vacillations were not philosophical musing, but a living reality of frustration and rage. There was a ratcheting up of his desire to exact the cruellest possible revenge on Claudius. Williamson realised that with Shakespeare the poetry can be trusted to take care of itself, and he traded a carefully enunciated rendering for the power of a singular performance. His nasal voice at times modulated into one extremely suitable for expressing an aggressive bitterness. He eschewed declamation in favour of a more conversational tone and moments of cutting cynicism and sarcasm. 

The other role Williamson is most remembered for is Bill Maitland in John Osborne’s Inadmissible Evidence, performed, earlier in his career, to much acclaim in both London and New York, and it was also filmed. The character is in despair at the state of his life, and the nervous anger Williamson presented, a frightening intensity on the brink of madness, might be seen, at least in part, as a template for his portrayal of Hamlet. 

As a person, Williamson was complex, troubled and difficult. He had a problem with alcohol and a proclivity for fast living. When playing King Lear at a small theatre in north Wales, the director cancelled the second night, knowing Williamson would party so hard after the first night that it would not be possible (the performances resumed again on what should have been the third night). He also had anger management problems, and on more than one occasion landed blows against a fellow actor or a producer. At one point in the 1970s, he walked out of The Dick Cavett Show, at the time one of America’s leading chat shows, just prior to a scheduled appearance. His own volatility was, it seems, imported into Hamlet, understanding the character partly, and inevitably, through those aspects of himself he must have considered valid for his incendiary interpretation.

Later in 1969, it was decided this production must be filmed for posterity. As with the play, the director was Tony Richardson. I did not watch the film, thinking it might subvert my memory of its theatrical origins. Until now, when I decided it would probably be a valuable addition to this piece. All of the sets were within the Roundhouse, which, as its name suggests, is a theatre-in-the-round (used as both a rock music and theatre venue). For Hamlet, it also became a film studio. The film is not just documentation, but valid as cinema, and the many close-ups do not in any way detract from Williamson’s performance, on the contrary they provide yet another cause for admiration. Stating the obvious, it is, though, a recording of Nicol Williamson playing Hamlet and not the actual Nicol Williamson I was privileged to experience in a performance now lost forever: a series of moments on a particular night, when something approaching farce occurred: Williamson’s pacey movements shifted the dagger round his waist to the middle of his back, where it dangled between his legs. In response to the phallic connotation, there were a few giggles from the audience, and I doubt if I was the only one thinking ‘if he sits down now, he will have a nasty surprise.’ He didn’t, and that part of the action soon ended. Did this detract from his performance? At that point, a little bit, since it became unintentional Brechtian alienation, and if he wasn’t aware of it, and I don’t think he was, a type of dramatic irony might also be argued. In retrospect, it emphasises a strength of theatre: it is an art form that inhabits the actual stuff of living, with all its unpredictability. In film there would have been a ‘take 2’ and I am pleased that I saw the 'real thing’ when that could not happen. Theatre also means a third dimension, and it was amazing to be close to the actual space Nicol Williamson was moving through, because movement was a crucial part of his performance. Nevertheless I would encourage people to watch the film. The DVD I received was produced for the Italian market, but it was fine and the subtitles could be switched off. There are a few extracts on YouTube, and again I would encourage tracking down everything there with Nicol Williamson, including interviews. Why? Because he was an exceptionally great actor, and there are never many of those.                                                                                        

About the reviewer

Robert Richardson is a visual artist and writer living in Leicestershire. His work is included in Artists’ Postcards: A Compendium (Reaktion Books, London) and Leeds Postcards (Four Corners Books, London). He has graphic artworks in collections of the British Museum and the Australian National Gallery. In 2018, he had a solo exhibition of photographs, Luz Brilhante, at the Museu Municipal, one of the leading museums in Faro, Portugal. In the last few years he has produced a portfolio of digital artworks, some of which are now available as limited edition prints. www.robertrichardson.art

Monday 24 August 2020

Review by Jane Simmons of "I, Ursula" by Ruth Stacey

At an online literary festival earlier this year, I heard poet Ruth Stacey speaking about writing imagined memoirs - and the techniques which she uses to create an authentic sounding voice for historical characters. In I, Ursula, her second full-length collection of poems, she presents the reader with a wide range of voices for female characters both real and imagined. 

The poems about the imagined characters take us back into the worlds of fairy-tale, legend and folk-history – to Rose Red, to Beauty and the Beast, to mermaids and witches. These poems take us into familiar Angela Carter territory – magical, subversive, feminist - and they are often entertaining in their exploration of paradoxes of female experience. ‘Bears are not good fuck-buddies’ begins the poem ‘Rose Red’ – and though the speaker goes on to list her bear’s many faults which lead her to throw him out because she ‘just can’t stand him any more,’ the poem ends, ‘I hope he comes back / I miss the warmth of the bear in my bed.’

The poems which I find the most powerful are those where the poet explores the experience of the female muse and the male artist in both art and literature. This major theme is introduced in the wittily titled poem ‘Averse Muse’ which opens the collection, and it is easy to spot in other titles such as ‘Muses.’ There is a strong feminist agenda behind the  presentation of the muse in many of these poems, and it is perhaps most striking or shocking in the eponymously titled poems such as ‘I, Ursula,’ ‘Camille  Claudel,’ ‘Jeanne Hebuterne,’ ‘Emilie Floge.’ This is where the personal becomes political: the male artists are known, but not the names of their female muses – not even when they were talented artists in their own right. The poor ‘I’ even goes unnamed in the golden shovel ‘Decorative’ and the later poem ‘Lady of a Portrait’ - no wonder that these women rebel. These poems – like so many others in the collection – explore relationships between artist and muse, men and women, the tensions between life and art, and the creation and appreciation of various forms of art, in terms of power and powerlessness.

About the reviewer 

Jane Simmons is a former teacher/lecturer who has recently completed an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Lincoln. She is now a PhD student at the University of Leicester. As a reviewer for The Blue Nib literary magazine, Jane has built a significant publication history of writing about contemporary women’s poetry. A selection of her own poems appeared in the March 2019 edition of the magazine. Her pamphlet From Darkness into Light - poems inspired by the Book of Kells was published in 2018. Further poems have appeared in The View from the Steep, an anthology published by Pimento Press in 2019.


Tuesday 11 August 2020

Review by Cathi Rae of "Threadbare" by Abbie Neale

There is nothing more truly depressing as a working poet than being asked to review a debut collection so wonderful that you immediately decide to pack it in and start whittling or metal detecting.

Neale's work has already been published extensively in a wide range of literary magazines and she was the winner of the 2019 New Poets Prize and it’s easy to understand why.

This slim collection, 36 pages, is divided into two sections – Part 1 with its frontispiece of a dark and decaying cityscape focuses on violence, the violence of men towards women, the violence of bad sex, the violence of sexual predators and the damage that women do to themselves in surviving toxic relationships.

Neale’s language is deceptively simple, but there is a clear sense that not one single word is extraneous. This is writer using huge restraint to describe very difficult things. Her use of descriptive language is extraordinary and leaves images that burn into your memory.

The poem “Can you draw him for us” about a sexual predator contains this striking image:

          so she outlines the lamppost instead

          where she saw the man waiting

          It cranes over him like a surrealist showerhead

The collection's second section, which is illustrated by an image of city brought to life with plants and life, explores the rebirth of relationships and love, with mother, sister and new lovers. Poems about love and acceptance and the possibility of new love avoid being sentimental or mawkish.

Even romantic love is handled with a light and deft touch. In “Being told that you are loved,” “It’s the closeness of coffee bean handfuls, it’s danger and relief, it’s the hairless tail escaping the bird beak.”

This is a beautiful selection of poems, buy it, tell other people and yes, I’m jealous.

About the reviewer

Cathi Rae is currently completing her MA in creative at Leicester University. She is a performance poet and spoken word artist and a multiple slam poetry winner and is allegedly working on her second poetry collection. Books about serial killers, unlikely heroes and blood are amongst her secret reading pleasures.

Monday 3 August 2020

Review by Lucretia Rose McCarthy of "Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency" by Olivia Laing

I came to Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency after enjoying Olivia Laing’s 2018 novel Crudo. Crudo broke away from Laing’s non-fiction to brilliantly detail the despair of the politically turbulent summer of 2017 through the persona of experimental writer Kathy Acker. Funny Weather is its antidote. Returning to criticism through neatly ordered essays on subjects ranging from the environment to loneliness and immigration via art and culture, it is the culmination of Laing’s works gathered across a formidable career as a critic. The two books are inextricably linked, with Crudo presenting the chaos and fear at work in the world, and Funny Weather offering order and hope despite the frequently difficult topics addressed. 

It is a book that is at once sensitive, humorous and optimistic. Through the collection, Laing takes in radical acts of self-care through film director Derek Jarman, the ‘fertile paranoia’ driving David Wojnarowicz’s art and the joy and renewal of David Bowie’s music. She introduces queer writer Maggie Nelson, revisits theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and offers a conversation with singer Joseph Keckler, alongside many more. In this way, the text is highly peopled, forming communities of artists, writers and musicians in abundance without ever feeling pretentious or overwhelming. Funny Weather left me with a delightful, lengthy further reading list curated by what felt like a generous guide who appeared to be in conversation with the artists at hand and with the reader too. Laing’s own anecdotes maintained the autobiographical element familiar in many of her texts, which supported the interesting and often surprising biographical details of the artists littered throughout each of the essays. Each piece feels effortless, clearly backed up by Laing’s almost forensic research, making abstract art and distant figures familiar in the same way that the artists she invokes mediate our complicated world.

Funny Weather shows exactly what art can do in an emergency, how it can offer insight as well as respite, working as protest and envisioning new futures. As we begin to return to the world post-lockdown, this book provides not only comfort in chaos but strategies and spaces for hope. Though easily devoured in one sitting, it is one to return to, dipping into favourite essays and revisiting artists like old friends. It is the book we all need right now. 

About the reviewer
Lucretia Rose McCarthy is PhD researcher based at the University of Leicester in the department of Languages and Literature. Her work centres on women’s contemporary experimental life writing and is supported by funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Midlands4Cities Doctoral Training Partnership. 

Review by Charis Buckingham of "The Gossips' Choice" by Sara Read

I approached Sara Read’s novel with anticipations of enjoyment. A historical novel, set in one of my favourite periods of history, from the perspective of a woman, could hardly fail to appeal. I believe shining light onto the everyday lives of women throughout history is incredibly important; that this novel tackles this topic is an immediate recommendation. 

The novel opens as Lucie Smith, the protagonist, attends the "laying of" Lady Eleanor. Immediately, her skill and expertise becomes evident, although the modern reader may raise an eyebrow at some of the people's fundamental beliefs; in particular, their medical ideas and theories. Nevertheless, Lucie’s voice prevails, as she lets you into her busy, God-fearing, contented life as a midwife. She details several different cases, the characters and events moving together, against the backdrop of summer 1665 and the plague. 

As the story progresses, Lucie’s trials grow greater. Martha, her maid and close friend, finds herself with child, and Lucie, along with her deputy attend a difficult birth where both mother and child die. The tone begins to change; what was once contented and assured is now uneasy and uncertain. As the novel reaches its crescendo, a case is raised against Lucie, questioning her skill as a midwife, and her husband, Jasper, travels to London. He begins to feel unwell as she struggles at home. When he is found dead, a bruise under his armpit indicates plague, although it’s never officially confirmed. This small detail reflects the reality of life during pestilence and the inaccuracies of public records. 

The novel closes quietly, hushed with grief as Lucie contemplates life on her own, but with the promise of hope as the trial against her is overturned. 1665 has been a harsh and unusual year, but the story holds the reader’s attention throughout. 

One of Read’s greatest strengths is the way she embraces the spirit of the time. Her precision of writing brings what is ostensibly a simple story into full and vibrant colour. Politics, religion and superstition reflect the turmoil of the country at large and are interwoven expertly into each character. I would wholeheartedly recommend this novel to either those well-versed in historical knowledge, or those looking for an immersive and engaging read. 

About the reviewer
Charis Buckingham graduated from Leicester University in 2018 with an MA in Creative Writing, and has since split her time between teaching ESL, writing, and walking her dog. She occasionally dabbles in poetry and short stories, but her heart is in full-length novels, and she is currently editing a YA fantasy novel. Her favourite genres are fantasy, historical fiction, and romance, but she never says no to a good serial killer documentary.