Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The Virtu: Sarah Monette

(published by Ace, out of print, but available as an e-book from Amazon)

««« ½

Doctrines of Labyrinths: Book II

If you're going to entrust your life and well-being to the care of another human being, would Felix Harrowgate really be your first choice?

Well, there's no accounting for taste. Picking up from the end of Mélusine, we rejoin Mildmay and Felix in the Gardens of Nephele. Felix has been healed of his madness and Mildmay has been freed of his own death-curse, but is stuck with the pain of his lamed and twisted leg. Although Felix seems happy enough, studying dream-magic, working his way through the library, and winning admirers left, right and centre, Mildmay feels increasingly isolated and out of place. He's perfectly aware that these elevated philosophers only tolerate him because he happens to be the half-brother of the new toast of the town. For once, Felix rises above his own selfishness just long enough to see Mildmay's unhappiness; and he decides it's time for them to go home.

Of course, this being Felix, the return to Mélusine is as much for his own benefit as Mildmay's. Felix has realised that, with his power restored, he has the ability to mend the Virtu and thwart Malkar's plans to weaken the Mirador. What better way for Felix to waltz back into the good books of the court? As far as Mildmay is concerned, simply getting out of the Gardens is a start. Returning to Mélusine itself, if they ever get that far, would actually be something of an issue for him. His life in the Lower City is effectively over: there's a reason no one has ever heard of a lame cat-burglar. His beloved Ginevra is dead; and his future, such as it is, lies in the hands of his charismatic but fickle brother. For now, Mildmay just focuses on getting back to the mainland, but they've scarcely boarded their ship before he realises with a jolt that he's once again going to be sidelined. Felix charms his way into the company of their elegant fellow passengers - among them the Gauthy family, and the enigmatic young man Phaëthon (who turns out to be a no-less enigmatic girl named Arakhne, travelling in disguise - I suspect we'll see her again). Mildmay, however, finds that the only person who seems to want his company is the over-imaginative young Florian Gauthy, with his taste for wild stories of Lower City life. And then, when the travellers reach the Gauthys' home town, Florian goes missing; and Felix and Mildmay find themselves descending into yet another labyrinth in the hope of finding him.

As I said of the last book, the two main characters and their relationship continue to be the driving force of this series. The plot is fast-paced and engaging, and thankfully less grim than in the first novel, with some marvellously eerie moments, such as the scene where Felix discovers the way to lay to rest the wandering ghosts in the Mirador. But the most gripping aspect of the story, for me, is the way our two narrators relate to one another, and that starts to get very... interesting here. In fact the whole series seems to be an exploration of different forms of love, whether that's friendship, fraternal love, admiration, desire and so forth, and the various ways that these can intertwine. As I hinted in the last book, Felix has what can only be described as thoroughly inappropriate feelings and, in inadvertently revealing these, he provides one of the dramatic turning points of the book. However, I rather liked the fact that Felix was grown-up enough to accept that nothing more was on the cards (for now?), and that Mildmay could face up to the unexpected, and see that the bigger picture was more important. The latter is actually one of the key themes of this book: Mildmay is constantly prepared to sacrifice his own welfare for the greater good, which he invariably (in an endearingly misguided fashion) associates with helping Felix achieve his aim with the Virtu. Unfortunately Felix isn't the noble hero his half-brother loyally believes him to be, deep down. For all his professions of love, he doesn't even appreciate the degree of danger he's putting Mildmay into, until it's too late. After all, their return to the Mirador doesn't just bring Mildmay's life into danger from the Curia, but also accidentally places him directly in Malkar's path.

Delving deeper into the theory of labyrinths and magic and the unquiet dead, this was a satisfying sequel and, once again, formidably readable. In fact I think I got through the entire book in the course of the journey from Gatwick Airport to Florence. As soon as I got back to London I ordered the final two books in the series and I'm now waiting very impatiently for them to arrive so that I can read more. As before, it's not so much what happens next that matters to me, so much as being able to read more of Mildmay's narration. If anything, I found his voice even more infectious this time round. It's probably because I read the two books in one extended sitting, but by the end of it I was actually thinking in Mildmay's voice and found it terrifically hard to shake off.

And isn't that a marvellous cover? Young man perched in dramatic pose on roof. Check. Blade in hand. Check. Implausibly white billowing shirt. Check. Swashbuckling perfection, as I said.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Mélusine: Sarah Monette

(published by Ace, out of print, available as an ebook from Amazon)

««« ½

Doctrines of Labyrinths: Book I

Having enjoyed The Goblin Emperor, I thought it would be fun to read some other books by the same author, and that meant going back to her popular Doctrines of Labyrinths series. Needless to say, I hadn't read much of the first book, Mélusine, before realising that this was a very different kind of novel. So much for heart-warming cosiness! By contrast, something happens in the early chapters of Mélusine which very nearly made me decide not to carry on - those who've read the novel will know what I'm talking about. While I don't mind reading about violence in battle situations, torture and sexual violation is another matter entirely. But I decided to give it a chance and ploughed on (things settle down a bit after that early, shocking scene); and, to my surprise, I was completely and utterly gripped. I still can't decide whether or not I actually liked the book as a whole, but that's immaterial in view of the fact that I was hooked.

The story is set in the city of Mélusine, in a world where the calendar is based on the French revolutionary system and the names are a blend of French, Greek and English influences. The town itself is a seething jumble of streets inhabited by hired muscle, vagrants and bands of feral child-thieves, who owe allegiance to no one but their 'Keeper'. Above the different districts and territories rises the Mirador, the upper city, a labyrinthine complex of passages, halls and towers where the court resides. You would imagine that the governor, Stephen Teverius, is at the heart of the Mirador; but this isn't quite true. In fact the Mirador centres on a blue sphere of pulsing energy, called the Virtu, which regulates and controls the various magical forces in the realm. Among Stephen's courtiers are his wizards - the Curia - who are devoted to both serving and preserving the Virtu and preventing darker powers from seeping in. This is a world, after all, where magic can be very dark indeed. Ghouls and necromancers haunt the cemeteries in the Lower City, and renegade wizards circle the Mirador's defences like wolves.

This is where Felix Harrowgate comes in. Saying that Felix has issues is like saying that the Marquis de Sade was occasionally intemperate. He's one of the most powerful wizards in the Curia: a brilliant, handsome and obnoxiously arrogant redhead, making enemies at the same rate he scythes his way through the hearts of the Mirador's nobles. But Felix has a secret. His past is a pretence, cobbled together to hide his grim beginnings as a child prostitute in the slums of Mélusine. 'Rescued' by a man who can see Felix's magical talent, he's been groomed to act and think as a nobleman, given a plausible back-story, and manoeuvred into the Curia. And now the time has come to repay the favour. Confronted by his former master and lover, Felix is forced into service as the conduit for a spell of unprecedented power which aims to dismantle the very foundations of the Mirador's power. It works. With the Virtu shattered, the Mirador's protective influence crumbles away and all manner of dark magic begins to rise. Felix's signature on the spell is plain, but he is unable to defend himself. Compelled to silence, he plummets into a terrifying world of madness, where emotions manifest themselves as colours and those around him bear the shape-shifting heads of animals. Tormented and broken, he's barely conscious of being stripped of his honours and cast into the city's madhouse, where even more horrors await him. The only thing Felix knows is that he has to get out: he's seen some gardens in a dream, where he knows he could be healed. The only problem is how to get there.

And then there's Mildmay, and this is where the book leaps into gloriously exuberant life. A cat-burglar and hired blade, who is something of a legend despite his youth, Mildmay is a familiar sight in the Lower City in Mélusine - not least because of the striking scar across his face. He has freed himself from his Keeper, struck out on his own and is doing rather well for himself; but things are about to take a very unexpected turn. First, a young woman hires him to help her retrieve some jewellery, which takes him precisely to the one place in Mélusine he doesn't want to be. Shortly afterwards, in the process of running for his life, he stumbles across a foreign wizard and his taciturn servant who offer him a commission: find Felix Harrowgate. All Mildmay knows about this man is that he's just destroyed the Virtu and that he seems to be a key to this foreigner's own quest. But, when he finally does track Felix down, he is faced with a stupefying revelation (Mildmay, incidentally, is also a natural redhead: I've never read a book whose plot hinged so closely on a question of hair dye). And so this world-weary thief finds himself saddled with a task that seems more impossible than any he's faced so far: somehow getting an insane, emotionally scarred wizard halfway across the world on the off-chance that the gardens he keeps seeing in his dreams might be real.

The real key to the book is the characterisation. Felix and Mildmay take alternating chapters for their narration, so you get to know both of them extremely well and, through Felix's chapters, Monette conveys a convincingly visceral kind of madness. While the two men are very different from each other, they've both suffered abuse at the hands of those who should have protected them and you really get a sense of the masks they wear to face the world, to shield their lonely, damaged, affection-starved inner selves. The complementary first-person narrations are a stroke of genius, because you get to see these two people struggling to make sense of each other, usually getting the wrong end of the stick, but floundering on because they simply don't have anyone else. Despite being younger, Mildmay is much more mature. He takes on Felix with the fraternal bluffness of someone raised in the tightly-knit thief community, which masks a deep loyalty and commitment rarely found in the generic 'rogue' character type. On occasion Mildmay does get exasperated with Felix, but this is balanced out by a large dose of hero-worship. He forces himself through a series of dangerous endeavours in an effort to somehow prove himself worthy of this captivating person (and be properly noticed by him). The irony, obviously, is that Mildmay is easily worth ten of Felix. In a crisis, Mildmay would probably have a rope or a piece of wire to cleverly get you out of trouble, whereas Felix would just have hysterics and hide in the corner. Anyway. For his part, even through the fog of madness, Felix develops a desperate dependence on Mildmay but his feelings (unsurprisingly, considering Felix) are rather more... complicated.

Having read some other reviews after I'd finished Mélusine, I realised that my own feelings about the book are shared by many, many other readers out there. Whenever Felix wasn't completely insane I wanted to slap him for his precious self-importance. I also felt slightly uneasy that the scene near the beginning seemed designed to force me to pity him, even though I couldn't see anything remotely sympathetic about this character. By the end of this book he seemed to be displaying faint traces of humanity, but I decided not to get my hopes up too much. By contrast, I adored Mildmay from approximately the second line written in his narrative voice, which is one of the most deliciously distinctive that I've ever come across. Peppered with slang and cant and a catchphrase that gets stuck in your head (and would be entirely inappropriate to say out loud), it shows up the differences in the way that the commons and the elite speak, and adds to the already impressive level of world-building. By the middle of the book I wasn't even watching the plot so much as revelling in the way that Mildmay tells his side of the story; and by the final pages I had decided that I had to read the rest of the series if only to spend more time with him as a character. 

I have to conclude with a nod to the striking cover art for this series. I believe the artist is Judy York (please correct me if I'm wrong) and she has created four very different but beautiful designs. I'd seen this cover several times over the years and was intrigued by it; and now, having read the book, I can only assume that Felix would be very smug about looking so brooding and mysterious. Mind you, I have to admit that the cover for the next book is even more wonderful, because it ticks all my swashbuckling boxes with gusto (and features Mildmay, obviously).

So there we go. I didn't think I was going to enjoy this book at all and, completely despite myself, I've been captivated by it. Since I read it while travelling, I went straight on to the sequel, The Virtu, because I really couldn't help myself. That says a lot about the quality of the writing, even if the content is sometimes a bit disturbing. I just hope things don't get too dark as we carry on.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Shakespeare in Love

(Noël Coward Theatre, London, currently booking to 25 October)

I will have poetry in my life. And adventure. And love. Love above all! 
For the feel-good romantic comedy hit of the summer, head down to the Noël Coward Theatre on St Martin's Lane in London, where the stage production of Shakespeare in Love has just opened for previews. It's only been running for a few days but a friend and I went along to see it tonight and it is genuinely one of the most delightful plays I've ever seen. At the end we tumbled out in the London night so stuffed full of joy that we were fit to burst: comedy, love, and a bit with a dog. What more could you desire?

It's 1593 and Will Shakespeare - actor, jobbing playwright and frustrated poet - has writer's block. His recent play Two Gentlemen of Verona has been swiped by Richard Burbage's rival theatre company, while Will's own patron Philip Henslowe is being threatened by his rapacious creditor Fennyman. Will is under pressure to produce something brilliant for Henslowe to draw in the crowds and get the theatre back in the black. His new play Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter has a promising title but little else, and the more Will thinks about it the more he begins to feel that it just isn't quite right. Despite the pirates. And the dog. To make matters worse, his friend and fellow poet Kit Marlowe is the toast of the town, and seems to be the only man around Bankside capable of throwing off a sonnet or two. Will despairs. But then, in the auditions for Romeo and Ethel, he meets Thomas Kent: a mysterious young man who promises to be the perfect romantic lead for Will's new play. When Will and Kit try to track Thomas down at the address he's given - the house of the wealthy de Lesseps family - they can't find any trace of him. But Will does see Viola de Lesseps, the daughter of the house, and falls immediately and hopelessly in love. 

Little does he realise that Viola has secrets of her own. A passionate theatre-goer, desperate to feel the thrill and camaraderie of the playhouse, she has been slipping out of her home in disguise - as none other than Thomas Kent. Life and art begin to twine together. Viola's fiance Lord Wessex begins to resent the playwright he spots hanging around her house, Will finds himself being drawn deeper into an impossible love affair, and Romeo and Ethel begins morphing into something greater, bleaker and much more beautiful. On top of that, the Master of the Revels is trying to close the theatres, the actor playing Juliet is on the verge of his voice breaking, and Henslowe has bought a dog that nobody knows what to do with. It has all the hallmarks of a complete disaster. But everyone knows it will turn out well in the end. They're just not sure how. It's a mystery.

'Shall I compare thee...': Will struggles with his sonnets
I must add a disclaimer: the 1998 version of Shakespeare in Love is one of my favourite films and I've watched it more times than I care to remember. It set a high bar for the stage version and I wasn't prepared to be a pushover. But the play not only matched the film: it surpassed it. Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard's screenplay is a love letter to the theatre and it works marvellously on the stage, where plays take place within plays, and the whole of Elizabethan London unfolds between the wings. The first half was a non-stop delight. I think the first laugh came about ten seconds into the play and by the interval I had tears in my eyes and agreed with my friend that I actually didn't want a twenty-minute break: couldn't they just carry straight on? 

My one criticism might be that the start of the second half seemed to lose momentum slightly in comparison. In a way that's a problem with the script, because after the interval the mood changes to a minor key as the comedy of Romeo and Ethel transforms into the shimmering tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. The second half has to open with a string of more serious scenes, but I don't know whether they could be tightened somehow, to counter the feeling that, after the riotous first half, it becomes a little slow. It was only for a brief time, though. The audience never lost attention and there were some moments - particularly during the 'performance' of Romeo and Juliet - where the entire theatre seemed to be holding its breath. And that is a testimony to the actors.

'What light from yonder window breaks?': Viola finally finds her metier
The whole company were marvellous. I didn't recognise many of the names, although I was very pleased to see Paul Chahidi again, who'd delighted me as Maria in Twelfth Night and who here played the put-upon Henslowe. But the main roles were splendidly cast, especially Tom Bateman as Will. I hadn't seen him in anything before, although I know he was in Da Vinci's Demons (I once swore I would rather nail my tongue to the table than watch it; but now I'm almost tempted). He was perfect: engaging and lively, earnest in all the right places, with fine comic timing; and, quite frankly, he was rather gorgeous. If there was anyone in the audience who didn't come out at the end just a little bit in love with him, I'll eat my hat. Opposite him, Lucy Briggs-Owen was equally captivating. She was wonderfully tomboyish and made a convincingly gauche young man: her Viola gave off an energy and a vibrant appetite for life which I don't think ever quite made it through in the film. I was very envious of her beautiful Elizabethan gowns (but if I start on the costumes, we will be here all night, and it's already past 1am, and I need to go to work in seven hours).

I was pleased to see that the stage production gives Kit Marlowe a larger presence than he has in the film: here he's Will's friend and rival and sometime inspiration, and I very much enjoyed the few subtle nudges I spotted to various theories about his death or authorship. David Oakes did a wonderful job: his Kit was the laconic, laid-back foil to Will's frenzy, and he had a deliciously dry delivery. Since I have to stop somewhere, I just want to single out one more person; and the worst thing is that I don't even know his name. He's one of the musicians, who in this production are simply fantastic. As far as I could see they're actors doubling up on the instruments, which sound and look Elizabethan even if they're not actually historically accurate. And one of those actors has an astoundingly rich and glorious counter-tenor, which filled the theatre and made shivers go down the back of my neck. As I said, I don't know which of the cast was singing, but it was simply wonderful.

In an ideal world, this production would be on at the Globe (or the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse). The set design nods to this, with a clever wooden gallery that slides back and forth to create rooms or suggest back-stage spaces, and a set of chandeliers are lowered over the stage at several points, just as I saw in The Duchess of Malfi. Moreover, there is no curtain - the beginning of each part is signalled by the actors walking onto the stage - and the production finishes with a joyful jig, just as would happen at the Globe. It all adds to the Shakespearean flavour. Oh. And, before finishing, I should add that, yes, there really is a bit with a dog; and it's brilliant. 

All in all, this is a beautifully balanced dose of impossible love and infectious happiness. Exuberant, romantic and deliciously funny, it really is the perfect night out. See it if you can. 

Will and Kit gatecrash the de Lesseps' ball: just look at that wonderful set with the chandeliers

Monday, 14 July 2014

The Goblin Emperor: Katherine Addison

(published by Tor, $25.99, or from Amazon)


Some weeks ago, Heloise told me about The Goblin Emperor, which she'd just finished reading: she posted a review earlier today. She knows that I've just finished a very intense period at work, and urged me to track down this book for some light relief. This friendly urging was repeated several times with increased insistence, to which I finally gave in; and I'm delighted I did. At the weekend, free at last, I curled up to read and was very quickly charmed. This is a delightfully heart-warming book: a feast of intrigue with a well-meaning, appealing and thoughtful protagonist at its core. I should emphasise my gratitude to Heloise, because I wouldn't ever have chosen this book off my own back. I tend to shy away from elves and goblins and unpronounceable names (many of which appear in the first few pages here), but I have to stress that my fears were entirely unfounded. The culture clash between the different races adds political spice, but this is fundamentally a story about human nature, generosity and the will to do good. It is a story about people, and the fact that none of them are actually human is largely incidental.

Maia is eighteen years old: the youngest and least favoured son of the elf Emperor Varenechibel IV. The Emperor, who set aside Maia's goblin mother, has no interest in his half-breed son who, since his mother's death ten years ago, has been brought up in an out-of-the-way country retreat, under the tutelage of his impatient and unyielding cousin Setheris. Maia knows nothing of the court - indeed, he knows very little about anything at all. But then an imperial courier arrives late one night with shocking news. Maia's father the Emperor, along with Maia's three elder brothers and his nephew, has died in an airship crash, leaving Maia the heir to the imperial throne. With no idea how to rule or who to trust, Maia can only follow his own instincts, his sense of duty and his desire to do the right thing - and the last two, if not the first, lead him to the court and the crown. It is not a smooth transition. Maia swiftly realises that out-of-sight really does mean out-of-mind. His arrival and, indeed, his very existence, are clearly a shock for many people, not least the ambitious Lord Chancellor Chavar and Maia's newly-bereaved sister-in-law Sheveän, whose son Idra is next in line. Drawing on all his reserves of grace and diplomacy, Maia must find a way to establish himself in the face of resentment and mockery; and, in an effort to break away from the legacy of his hated father, must create an inner circle of his own. Lonely, confused and desperate for guidance, he longs for friends - the one luxury an emperor is not supposed to have. But as Maia begins to set things in place, with as much tact and dignity as he can manage, he begins to find that he is not alone. With the devoted assistance of his secretary Csevet, and his nohecharei bodyguards Beshelar and Cala, he begins to make his mark on a realm which little appreciates how greatly it needs him.

One of the chief things I demand of a fantasy novel, you might remember, is that it should have good world-building; and that's one area where this book triumphs. It's refreshing to find something which isn't simply based on medieval Europe: there is more of medieval Japan here, I think, with the elaborate robes and hairdressing, the generals who wear masks and the elaborate protocols. However there's also a rather wonderful steampunk element, with airships and steam power, automatons and pneumatic tubes to send messages. As a reader you're thrown straight in at the deep end, suddenly faced with all these strange terms and ranks and forms of address, and you are left to find your way through on your own. As you read more, it gradually makes sense until, by the end, you actually have a pretty good grasp of the social structure, customs and political factions in what I must say is a very dense and beautifully detailed world. (Heloise kindly pointed out to me today that there is in fact a glossary in the back of the book, but I think in retrospect that I enjoyed it more, having to figure it all out for myself.) 

Being the kind of person who enjoys words, I'd also picked up some of the rules of the language and was having fun puzzling out the suffixes found in names and titles. I also found it interesting that Addison used the archaic informal mode of address (thee, thou, etc.) as well as the archaic formal (you, your) as a way of immediately signalling the relationship between two characters. Moreover, characters talking formally always refer to themselves in the first-person plural (i.e. we, our) so that when someone uses 'I' or 'me' you're struck by the intimacy of it, as the listener would be too. In this way you find yourself inadvertently understanding more about the culture. The choice of address also shows - very gracefully, without the author hammering the point home - how someone might try to show affection for someone else, or to offer a closer friendship by dropping their guard. It is so, so difficult to do this well in English (one of the few areas in which I feel my language is inferior to others). There were a couple of points where it didn't quite work, and one occasion where Addison forgot herself and used a 'you' in the middle of an informal discussion, but overall it was an extremely clever device. It adds extra depths to the characterisation, too. Maia is always adorable, but when you see his constant inner desire to be 'me' not 'we', your heart goes out to him, because the very language he's forced to use gets in the way of building relationships with those around him. However, he's a delightful, warm and caring person; so all you can do is trust that he finds a way through. (And, really, when was the last time you read about a character who manages to be all that and not simultaneously irritating or bland?).

As soon as I finished the book I wanted to go back and start it all over again; and I shall certainly be re-reading it. It is very probably one of those novels which you appreciate more as you read it more, and it's rare to finish a book with such a glow of well-being and contentment as I did here. Perhaps in a year or so I'll read this post again and wonder that I didn't give it a higher rating. But I can already see that it's a little gem of a novel: witty, touching, and full of a radiant humanity, and I really hope that Addison is planning a sequel. I can't deny that the odd flash of devilry in a character always sparks my interest, but nevertheless Maia won me over entirely. He's one of the most lovable and admirable figures I've come across for a long time. and I'd love to read more about him. Very much recommended.

A by-the-by to finish: Heloise tells me that Katherine Addison is a pseudonym for the author Sarah Monette, who has already written several very popular fantasy novels. I haven't actually read any of them, although Heloise is a fan. From the scattered preview pages I have scan-read, they seem to be in a rather different spirit from this; and I'll be interested to see what others who've read her earlier books make of The Goblin Emperor

Oh, and another by-the-by. Is it just me or is there a distinct Metropolis vibe to the cover? It rather amused me and, even if it's entirely accidental, it's a very subtle way to make the point that this certainly isn't your average fantasy novel. A round of applause to the cover designers Anna and Elena Balbusso.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Richard III

(Iris Theatre, St Paul's Church, Covent Garden, until 25 July 2014)

The midwife wonder'd, and the women cried
'O! Jesus bless us, he is born with teeth.'
And so I was; which plainly signified
That I should snarl and bite and play the dog.
Then, since the heavens have shap'd my body so,
Let hell make crook'd my mind to answer it.
(Richard, Henry VI: Part III, Act V, Scene 6)

This is the third production I've seen by Iris Theatre, and they never fail to delight. While in previous years I've seen them perform light, summery romantic comedies (A Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It), this was my chance to see them tackle something in a darker key. It's a very topical choice of play, of course: debate is still raging over whether or not the remains discovered in Leicester last year are indeed those of Richard III. I was intrigued to see what Iris, and their director Daniel Winder, would make of the king. Would he be a wicked schemer or Machiavellian opportunist? Would he be crushed and disillusioned by his family's scorn, or inherently evil? Twisted in mind, body or both? In last year's Globe production, for example, Richard was childishly petulant rather than malevolent: dangerous not for his subtlety but for his unpredictability. That was an interesting take on the role but not one I really warmed to: I longed for more of Richard's panache. Fortunately Winder and his cast provide this in spades. Their Richard is the classic Shakespearean villain: a hunchback with a twisted leg and a limp, and a withered arm. But he is also the most charming and beguiling Richard I've seen to date.

David Hwyel Baynes, whom I last saw as an efferverscent Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream, turns in a masterly performance. His Richard starts out as a confiding, impish fellow who is almost overcome by his own cleverness and who wants to share that glee with the audience. As he realises what he can get away with, he carries us along with him; we know that what he's doing is evil, but his humour and openness (to us) make us will him on to success. That makes his psychological disintegration in the second act even more shocking, as the boyish meddling turns into the homicidal fury of a man desperate to cement his position. But it also means that, by the final scenes, we are able to feel real pity for this Richard. He deserves all he gets; but, because he's won us over and made us laugh, even as he's shocked us, we can't watch his fall unmoved. And, rather than finishing on the high note of Richmond's triumph, this production continues for a moment longer, returning the focus to Richard's broken body amid a haunting Miserere. It willingly shows us Richard the villain but, unlike the other productions I've seen, it also shows us Richard the victim.

Richard as ambitious schemer, king and thwarted villain
That's partly the result of a very clever opening to the play. Iris do something which I haven't seen before: rather than plunge straight into the 'winter of discontent' speech, they begin with a scene from the end of Henry VI: Part 3, which helps to set the scene. By starting with the Battle of Tewkesbury, with the clash of steel and the death of Henry VI's son Edward at the hands of York, Clarence and Gloucester, we see that the rest of the play unfolds as a result of that murder. It makes it clear that the deaths and the fragmentation of the realm aren't the result of one man's machinations, but the price exacted by Fate from Edward IV and his brothers for their usurpation of their anointed king. (It's like Richard II and Henry IV all over again, with the usurpers doomed to expiate their sins, before a pure young king enters in the final act to set things right.) Moreover, such an approach changes the entire dramatic thrust of the play and gives much more significance to the figure of Queen Margaret (played by Mark Hawkins). 

In other productions I've found Margaret rather tedious and, when the Globe's version cut her out completely, I didn't think the play suffered for it. But Iris's decision to put Richard III in context makes the play part of something bigger and so Margaret becomes more important: a foil and counterpart to Richard, one grotesque against another. Her first appearance is at Tewkesbury, as a bona fide virago leading her men in battle with sword in hand. Later she slithers into the complacent York court, a chilling, prophetic figure with dishevelled auburn hair and one wild, staring white eye. Hawkins's performance is riveting. He conveys the full force of Margaret's anguish over her dead son and husband, which drives her into madness and curses and a thirst for vengeance. And, what's more, Iris adds one final particularly clever twist: Hawkins plays both Margaret and Richmond. In this way Margaret's triumph over the murderers of her son is personified in the noble figure of the future Henry VII. Very smart. (Hawkins also plays the Archbishop of York, and it wasn't until I read the programme afterwards that I realised he was also Catesby, who in this version becomes Richard's amoral sell-sword, the go-to man for murdering Clarence and the children. All in all, it was something of a tour de force. Someone give that man a clap on the back.)

Margaret grieves for her son at Tewkesbury  |  The innocent, ill-fated Lady Anne  |  Margaret glories in Elizabeth's grief
The rest of the cast divide up the roles between them and are uniformly impressive, slipping from persona to persona. I would love to go through everyone name by name, but we'd be here all day, so I'm going to stick to two other actors who particularly caught my eye. One moment Anne-Marie Piazza is the slaughtered Prince Edward of Lancaster; the next she's a naive Lady Anne, her initial vehemence fading into confused acquiescence in the face of Richard's repeated avowals of his love; and then in the next scene she turns up in the form of the future Edward V, all boyish self-importance and gaucheness. But perhaps the most wonderful transformation was Dafydd Gwyn Howells from the sainted King Henry VI (effectively a cameo, as he was slaughtered fairly swiftly) into a stiff, smug Earl Rivers, and then into a monumental and deliciously camp Duchess of York. But it's very much an ensemble success, so bravo to all. It's a show full of exuberance and flair, and I always love the promenade aspect, which means that the actors move among you and hurry you on from place to place: nowhere else do you have quite the same sensation of being part of the play. If you're in Covent Garden before 25 July with an evening to spare, do try to get to see this. You won't be disappointed. And if you can't make it by then, don't despair. Iris are putting on Alice through the Looking Glass from 30 July until 30 August. With their particular brand of magic, that should be equally unmissable. 

This probably counts as a spoiler, so if you're planning to see the show please don't read on because it'll be much more effective if you don't. But to those who won't get to see it (many of you, probably) I wanted to flag the staggering ending. As with the other two Iris productions I've seen, the performance ends within the church, which this time has been transformed into a throne room. In the aftermath of the Battle of Bosworth you go in, to find dry ice hazing the air. At first all you see is Richard on the throne. Then you realise he's not seated on the throne, but impaled through his stomach on a lance rising out of the throne - pinned in mid-air, limbs hanging, as if he really were a spider finally caught on an etymologist's pin. It was a shocking and hugely powerful ending. I wasn't the only person who clapped my hands over my mouth when I realised what I was seeing. 

A small aside. Surely it's no coincidence that the throne bore a striking similarity to the Iron Throne of Westeros? The Wars of the Roses famously served as a source for Game of Thrones, but during the interval I found myself thinking that the series's popularity could also give audiences a new and more sympathetic attitude to Richard. After all, in that series we're used to rooting for a man of acute intelligence who's mocked by those around him, simply because he's had the misfortune to be born with physical differences that make him a monster in other people's eyes. The key difference with Richard III, of course, is that ultimately Richard also becomes a monster to himself:

My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.
... I shall despair. There is no creature loves me;
And if I die, no soul will pity me:
Nay, wherefore should they, since that I myself
Find in myself no pity to myself?
(Richard, Act V, Scene 3)

Queen Elizabeth (Laura Wickham) and Edward IV (Sam Donnelly) in happier times  |  Is winter coming?
The dashing Duke of Buckingham (Nick Howard-Brown)
Photos in this post from Iris Theatre's Facebook page.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Outlaw: Angus Donald

(published by Sphere, £6.99, or from Amazon)


The Outlaw Chronicles: Book I
As I looked up at the church door, I noticed something amiss. A dark lump had been affixed above the lintel ... It was the severed head of a young wolf, eyes still open and glittering madly in the torchlight ... I felt a sense of almost unbearable excitement, a euphoria soaring up through my lungs and into my head. He had dared to desecrate the church with the body of an animal, to make it, for one night, his own. He dared to risk his immortal soul with a pagan symbol in the sacred precincts of our Mother Church. This was a fearless man indeed.
Angus Donald's name crops up a lot in the historical fiction forums over at Goodreads and so I was rather chuffed to stumble across a copy of his debut novel in my local second-hand bookshop. As you know, I find it hard to resist novels about Robin Hood and I was interested to see how Outlaw would tackle this character, whom I've recently come across in two very different fictional forms: romantic, noble and quietly traumatised in Lady of the Forest, and psychotic madman with a Messiah complex in the most peculiar Hodd. It's proven to be a good read, full of colour and historical flair.

Outlaw focuses on the Robin Hood myth from the perspective of Alan, a fatherless young thief who steals in order to support himself and his mother, the widow Dale. However, he steals one pie too many and, after escaping by the skin of his teeth from the soldiers of Sir Ralph Murdac (the Sheriff), Alan flees home to his frantic mother, who appeals for help to the one man who can stand up to the authorities. This is Robert Odo, called Robin by those who follow him: a renegade nobleman who, despite his youth, has transformed the villages and hamlets of Sherwood into a kind of personal affinity. Taken under his wing as cupbearer, Alan learns to respect, admire and fear his new master, whose privileged upbringing wars with a dark, ruthless streak. As he trains in the exercise of arms, develops his natural gift for music and learns to behave with the manners expected of a young squire, Alan is conscious of being part of something bigger: much bigger. Robin's devoted followers can muster a small army and, in these dark times with King Henry abroad, Queen Eleanor in prison, and their eldest son Richard chafing at his father's authority in Aquitaine, such power is no small thing in England. As Murdac and his fellow Norman barons seek to fill their pockets in the kingless kingdom, Robin and his men stand to protect the Saxon commoners crushed and oppressed by this new elite - and, moreover, to preserve the realm for when the king returns.

All the usual elements are present and correct in Donald's story, but he marshals them in a fresh and very effective way. He sets his story at a slightly earlier period than usual, at the tail end of Henry II's reign rather than already under Richard I, presumably to allow for the Crusades to play a role later in the series. This also means that his Robin is rather different from usual: he's still in his early twenties and has never been on Crusade, and Donald asks us to believe that he has built up his position through a mixture of opportunism, charisma and ruthlessness. I was very nearly convinced by this, but not entirely: perhaps more of Robin's backstory will become clear in the later books, which will throw more light on it. What is clear is that a traumatic childhood, precocious intelligence and a rather flexible attitude to morality have given Robin the impetus to strike out on his own, away from the shadow of his father and his eldest brother. Donald suggests an element of psychological instability: this Robin can be clubbable and merry and even romantic, when he's with his beloved Marie-Anne (the Countess of Locksley); but it can take very little to push him over the edge into calculating, almost psychopathic acts of violence. Disillusioned with the Church, he finds dark satisfaction in taking part in the rites of his pagan followers, assuming the role of Herne the Hunter and using the ancient rituals as another way to draw the people to him. (I thought that was a very successful scene, although it did give me flashbacks to the horned-god scenes in The Fall of the Kings.)

Alongside the conception of the 'merry men' as a well-drilled and regulated army, rather than a band of lovable rascals, this goes to make a very engaging take on the story and on our so-called hero. Donald is extremely good at battle scenes, particularly in the extended sequence towards the end of the book where there is a real effort to present an authentic late-medieval engagement in all its stages (there was even a mangonel: not exactly a trebuchet, to my disappointment, but worth a Brownie point). It felt gritty and cinematic: just the kind of battle-writing I enjoy, and the writing overall was vivid and rich. Where the book is slightly less successful is in the leaps of faith it asks us to make. I've already mentioned that I wasn't quite convinced by the youthful Robin drawing all these hardened older men to his cause. I also wasn't sure that Eleanor of Aquitaine would really have let one of her ladies sneak off for unaccompanied rendezvouses with a notorious outlaw. And I found the closing chapters rather hurried, as everything was tidied into place a little too conveniently. With the luxuriantly-described battle at an end, it felt as though Donald had suddenly realised that he had to scrabble all the loose ends together for a conventional Robin-Hood finale (am I risking spoilers to mention weddings, King Richard, the comeuppance - but not death - of the Sheriff, etc.?). In a way, knowing there are more books to come, I would have been quite happy not to have the traditional ending and to see the pardon, wedding and rehabilitation dealt with at greater length in the next book. 

But these are minor quibbles. I found this thoroughly enjoyable - which was a relief, because I bought the sequel, Holy Warrior, at the same time - and of the various Robin Hood novels I've read, I found it the most satisfying. It'll be interesting to see where Donald takes it from now on: judging from the sequel's title, it's pretty safe to say we're off on Crusade (and I'm looking forward to it, because I've been keen to get back to the Holy Land ever since Lionheart). However, I'm intrigued to see whether Robin is going to keep any of his qualities, or whether the outlaw days are truly done and dusted, and our merry men are going to smoothly transform themselves into warriors of God, and never think of Sherwood more.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Of Ink, Wit and Intrigue: Susan Cooper-Bridgewater

Lord Rochester, in Chains of Quicksilver

(published by Matador, £8.99, or from Amazon)

«« ½

'You will not like me,' warns the Earl of Rochester at the beginning of Laurence Dunmore's 2004 film The Libertine; 'you will not like me now, and you will like me a good deal less as we go on.' This, of course, is nonsense: the rake of rakes; the canker at the heart of the Restoration rose; the closest we English have ever come to anyone of Casanova's calibre... how can we fail to like Rochester? I've encountered him several times over the last couple of years, although always in a supporting role: his portrait, with monkey in tow, in the exhibition The Wild, The Beautiful and The Damned, for example, or making a cameo appearance in The Vizard Mask. When I spotted this book on offer on Netgalley, which promised to restore the syphilitic Earl to centre stage, I snapped it up immediately. Having come to it with such excitement, I wish I was able to be slightly more enthusiastic, but the simple truth is that I didn't get on very well with it and, in fact, almost didn't finish it. I wish it were otherwise; I never enjoy being downbeat about things.

Presented in a chronological format, the novel takes us through Rochester's life, told in his own words, virtually from the moment of his birth until his death (and beyond). It shows us this pampered, privileged young man as he embarks on his Grand Tour, where he makes his first forays into debauchery; and then, after his return, his rise to become one of the exuberant young devils of Charles II's court. It tells us about his abduction of the beautiful Elizabeth Malet, who becomes his long-suffering wife; his dalliances with actresses in London; and his dissolute revels with his friends and their whores. And, to some extent, it gives us a man who has the occasional desire to reform - to focus his world on his loving wife and beautiful children - but who just doesn't have the will or the energy to put it into practice. 

Cooper-Bridgewater has clearly done a lot of research and immersed herself in the details of Rochester's life, and the book seems keen to be as faithful as possible to the facts. The result is an unusual mix. Sometimes the book goes into more detail than seems necessary (such as the point where Rochester describes the decoration of his children's bedroom), which presumably reflects documented evidence about his life and living arrangements, and has been included to add colour. That would be all well and good if it fitted seamlessly into a similarly detailed narrative, but I'm sorry to say that, for me anyway, the book lacked imaginative verve. It methodically tells us when and where Rochester went on his Grand Tour, and who he travelled with, and when he returned to London - it ticks all the information points - but this is a novel, not a textbook, and as a reader I needed a little more. I wanted the kind of creative fire that would plunge me with Rochester into the fleshpots of Venice, or allow me to understand the intoxicating effect of Italian sensuality on a boy raised in the shadow of Cromwell's puritanical commonwealth. 

That goes for the rest of the book: we're told about wars, affairs and insults, but never shown them; and nor do we really see the incisive wit and scholarship of our narrator, who tells us proudly about his reputation but never actually proves it. Ultimately the story lacks the kind of thrilling psychological immersion that first-person narrations can achieve (As Meat Loves Salt offers a good historical parallel; or alternatively look at The Marlowe Papers for a clever example of what a novel about a poet can be). Here, I never got a real sense of Rochester's naughtiness, virtually all of which takes place off-stage. I'm not for a moment saying that I need my books to be populated with bouncing Restoration wenches, but in a novel about one of the most debauched figures in English history it would seem appropriate to have something rather more transgressive than a chaste kiss with a linkboy. 

This is a thorough and workmanlike account of Rochester's life, and the quality of the writing is generally good; but it just doesn't have the inspired breath that brings it to life. I certainly learned a little more about the rakish Earl and am now tempted to look out for a biography (I see that Blazing Star by Alexander Larman is due for release soon: has anyone read that, or James Johnson's A Profane Wit?). Other novels seem to be in short supply, except a rather unappetising-sounding effort by Graham Greene; so if anyone has further recommendations on that score, I'd be very interested. As for Of Ink, Wit and Intrigue, I'm afraid I ultimately found it to be more of an appetiser than the full-bodied feast I'd been anticipating. I'm sure that much of this is due to my preferences as a reader - I like the kind of meaty prose and characterisation that I can wallow in - and it may well be that those with slightly more austere tastes might find more to enjoy here than I did. In the meantime, however, it looks as though it's back to The Libertine...

I received a copy of this book from the publisher, via Netgalley, in return for a fair and honest review.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

King Lear

(National Theatre, London, until 2 July 2014)

I've been rather blown away by the reaction to my post on The Crucible and am only glad that so many people enjoyed it and found it useful. The secret to successful blogging, clearly, is to name-drop Richard Armitage as often as possible. However, in lieu of any other opportunities to do so, I wanted to write about another of the plays I've seen recently: the National's production of King Lear (directed by Sam Mendes), which is almost at the end of its run

You don't go to Lear expecting an evening of light-hearted entertainment. It's the tale of an autocratic monarch who crumbles from hubris into tragic isolation, and the play is stuffed with torture, madness and villainous intrigue. In retrospect it may not have been the ideal way to spend a night catching up with a good friend from university. He hadn't seen it before and, as the first act closed on a blood-soaked couple of scenes, I felt the need to apologise. Maybe he'd come expecting Shakespearean sparkle, mistaken identity, love, and a bit with a dog; and I'd dragged him along to something where the characters had a shorter life expectancy than in Game of Thrones. As we nursed our interval drinks, we wondered aloud how many - if any - characters would still be standing when the curtain fell. 

Our protagonist is Lear himself, an elderly patriarch with three daughters who has given the best years of his life to ruling the kingdom of Britain, and who now wants to spend his twilight years with less responsibility. Challenging his daughters to describe the magnitude of their love for him, he carves up his kingdom depending on the level of filial affection they describe. His elder daughters Goneril and Regan, who see their chances, obligingly pour out exuberant professions of love, while their foolish father basks in the false warmth of their words. But Lear's youngest and most beloved, the as-yet-unmarried Cordelia, remains silent. While her sisters can easily trot out what their father wants to hear, Cordelia has too much genuine affection to be able to put it into trite, convenient words. Mistaking her modest understatement for indifference, Lear flies into a passion and condemns her to exile. The doughty and loyal Kent, who dares to speak up for her, is banished too. Rather than accept that fate, Kent disguises himself as a common soldier so that he can remain in the service of his old, misguided king. Lear prepares to enjoy a pampered old age, shuttling between the castles of his two supposedly adoring daughters, but his contentment swiftly sours. First Goneril and Regan start grumbling about the cost of keeping him and his roistering band of knights. Then they start sniping at him. And then they start trying to chip away at his freedom. 

Lear announces his abdication  |  The three daughters: Regan, Goneril and Cordelia  |  The Fool entertains the troops
Faced with the unimaginable prospect of filial rebellion, Lear tries to assert his authority. But what authority does he have left? This arrogant and fallible man has given away his lands and his responsibilities - and with them his power. Without the kingdom under his thumb, he is at the mercy of his daughters. Too proud to admit that he was wrong in banishing Cordelia, Lear sinks into depression and madness, wandering into the moors with no one for company but his ever-faithful Fool and the doggedly loyal, incognito Kent. As the great patriarch is reduced to nothingness, the realm itself begins to crumble. The chaos of civil war is shown most clearly in the family of the Earl of Gloucester, whose bastard son Edmund has a sharp eye for the opportunities to be found in Regan's and Goneril's camp. While his father tries to mediate between Lear and his daughters, Edmund quietly begins to spin a web that will do away with his legitimate brother Edgar, win him a long-coveted place as his father's successor and, perhaps, even secure him the hand in marriage of a queen. In a world where everyone is out for their own gain, the traditional values of loyalty, faith and honour are trodden into dust. Children turn on their parents - subjects turn on their king - and Lear will discover that it's only at the very edge of despair that we can learn who to truly trust.  

Simon Russell Beale's Lear is a profoundly unsympathetic character. He is peevish, petulant and selfish, pushing his daughters to compete for his affection and unable to distinguish between genuine and feigned love. He is a man whose great days are behind him and who is descending into the querulous, bitter childishness of old age: a tyrant both to his family and his kingdom, and the kind of old man who saves his own pride by stabbing out at those who love him most. And yet, although this Lear has nothing warm about him, he's also pitiable: a hunched, physically shrunken figure who tries so hard to exert authority precisely because he knows he's slipping away from it. Russell Beale gives an incredible performance, taking Lear from the nasty, arrogant piece of work who opens the play, to the bruised and broken man who ends it. It's a sobering picture of the superfluity of old age. (And all the more remarkable from an actor whom I last saw on stage - when I was at school - as Hamlet, a character about fifty years younger than Lear, but whom Russell Beale pulled off with equal assurance.)

Edmund works his magic on Goneril  |  The Fool and Kent contemplate the fall of great men  |  Lear's descent into madness
Another standout for me was Sam Troughton as Edmund, who played the part of an outright villain with great relish and developed a clever solution to the problem of performing such a two-faced character. When he was wearing his glasses, we knew that we were seeing the face Edmund presented to the world: that of a dutiful, concerned and humble son to a great father. But when the glasses came off, then all was revealed: all the ambition and scheming was laid bare. Bravo to Troughton for taking a role I'd never paid much attention to, and turning him into one of the characters I most looked forward to seeing. Of the other actors, Olivia Vinall made a moving Cordelia with a core of steel, but I felt she didn't really have much to do; and Adrian Scarborough was memorable as a world-weary Fool whose loyalty receives the worst possible payment (that really shocked me, incidentally. Does he always end like that? I thought he was meant to be one of the few characters left at the final curtain). I didn't find all the roles completely successful, though. I had particular difficulty with Anna Maxwell Martin's Regan, I'm afraid, which was a real shame because I'd been looking forward to her performance. Sitting up in the circle, I found it impossible to hear what she was saying. Her lines tumbled out so quickly and with so little articulation that I just couldn't tune in to her voice, and besides I found her trophy-wife vapidness a rather dull counterpart to Goneril's (Kate Fleetwood) greater poise.

All in all it was an impressive performance of the text, but the production left me a bit cold. I don't know exactly why that should be, but I suppose part of it is probably the play itself; and part of it the way in which the steely modern setting, coupled with the largely unsympathetic characters, just left me struggling to find a way to emotionally invest in the action. Towards the end, as bodies piled up on stage, I realised that I hadn't really grown to care about any of these characters, despite the actors' competence. It was a frustrating feeling. I'd read many, many good reviews of the production and yet, for me, it lacked a little soul.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

The Crucible

(Old Vic Theatre, London, 21 June-13 September 2014)

I’ll tell you what’s walking Salem—vengeance is walking Salem. We are what we always were in Salem, but now the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law! (John Proctor - Act 1 Scene 2)
Arthur Miller's 1953 play about suspicion, accusation and popular hysteria has just opened at the Old Vic and, on the basis of the preview performance I saw last night, it may well be the most powerful and intense piece of theatre in London this year. The director Yaël Farber has stripped the play back to its essentials and the action unfolds in a claustrophobic, twilight world clouded with smoke and struck through with shafts of bright light. The costumes are inspired by the 17th-century but very simple, almost timeless, in silvery shades of black and grey and brown. With only a few pieces of furniture for their props, the cast perform the play in the round - the theatre has been transformed, with the stage brought forward into the heart of the audience, and it gives the production a heart-in-mouth intensity. I was some distance away, but can only imagine the impact of sitting in one of the front rows, where the actors pass within arm's length and you must almost feel part of Salem itself. It is not an easy play to watch and it certainly isn't short - this performance lasts for four solid hours and you'll be lucky to get home before midnight - but it works its compelling magic on the audience and the stage design makes it a visceral, intimate experience.

There has been a lot of talk in the press about certain members of the cast, whom I'll come to in a moment, but The Crucible is first and foremost an ensemble play and all the company are very strong. As Elizabeth Proctor, for example, Anna Madeley gives a performance of exquisite understatement, in which a surface coolness masks a powerful attachment to her husband, which she simply doesn't have the physical or emotional confidence to express. Adrian Schiller, as Hale, gives us a humane and troubled man, whose original confidence in his own faith and goodness cracks in the face of Salem's spiralling chaos. And I was also particularly impressed by Natalie Gavin's Mary Warren: anxiously wavering between terrified submission to her master, flashes of self-importance and adolescent hero-worship of Abigail. When she is forced to denounce her friends as liars to their faces, my heart went out to her as she stood trembling with fear in front of the other girls' passive, calculating silence. To keep up the intimacy of the play, the actors themselves come on to move furniture in the dreamlike scene-changing sequences.

Two of the Old Vic's posters and two rehearsal photos: it's too early to have production photos yet
It is amazing to think that Samantha Colley, as Abigail, is fresh out of drama school. She hasn't even done her final exams yet (I have a hunch she'll pass) and she turns in a brilliant performance, veering between girlish passion and adult vindictiveness. Her Abigail is a manipulative, cunning minx who is intoxicated by her own power over others; but she's also a teenage girl with a crush - a fatal combination. Abigail swiftly realises the dangers and possibilities of her position: she can only deflect suspicion from herself by implicating others, and she begins to see a way to get back at those in Salem who have spurned her. But as the accusations begin to get out of control, it isn't always easy to see whether Abigail herself, at some point, begins to believe that her own inventions are real. Her chemistry with Richard Armitage's John Proctor crackled off the stage, especially in the physicality of their first scene together, and Colley conjures up the kind of sensuality you well believe could turn a man's head.

And of course I was looking forward to seeing what Armitage (last featured on this blog as Thorin Oakenshield in The Hobbit) would make of Proctor. It's not the easiest role: he can't win the audience over through eloquence or wit, and he has old-fashioned virtues: stoutness of heart, honesty, and a strong, simple faith that distrusts frills and furbelows. We have to be convinced of his innate goodness. And I'm pleased to say that Armitage turns in a splendid interpretation. He gives us a Proctor who on the surface is taciturn and solid, a good neighbour, and a pillar of the community; but who, within, is troubled by his own barely-contained passions. His relationship with Madeley's Elizabeth was heartbreaking in its restraint and caution, thrown into relief by their final desperate embrace. It's a subtle emotional performance backed up by an incredibly powerful physical presence: at six foot two, Armitage towers over Colley's Abigail. I was interested by a comment one of my neighbours made: she said she'd always seen Proctor played by an older actor before (whereas my touchstone was the 1996 film with Daniel Day-Lewis). Armitage has much in common with Day-Lewis, in fact, and it thoroughly makes sense to have a younger actor in the role: one who can convincingly turn a young girl's head. 

At the moment, only three days into its run, the play has a raw and galvanising energy; the challenge for the cast and director will be to ensure that doesn't fade away as time goes on. If you have the chance to see it, I would thoroughly recommend it (just don't sit in seats D10 or E10 of the Dress Circle, because you will be behind a pillar): the combination of play and staging is remarkably successful. Yes, its sheer length may prove a challenge for some, but the measured pace and significant silences add so much to the atmosphere of the play: it would be a shame to cut too much. For my part, it'll be some time before I can shake off the image of Richard Armitage, towering in shackles in the centre of the stage, roaring out John Proctor's anguished defence of his dignity:
Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life. Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul, leave me my name! (John Proctor - Act 2 Scene 3)
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