Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

The Crouch End Festival and Alfred de Musset

June 10, 2018

As anyone who read the post on Marivaux and last year’s Crouch End Festival piece, Corbyn Island, will know in adapting pieces I like to do some half-arsed research in the milieu of how the originals came about. And in contrast to Corbyn Island the update of A Door (Should be Open or Shut) is nevertheless a period piece rather than being located in contemporary Britain. Mid-century London wasn’t too much of a stretch for the update and fortunately the background and context for Musset’s play, Il Faut Qu’une Porte Soit Ouverte ou Fermée, was less unfamiliar to me if only because I’ve been something of a Delacroix obsessive for some time.*

Where’s the connection with Delacroix? Well, of course they’re both French Romantics though working in different disciplines, but the connection is much more personal than being inspired by the same mid-nineteenth century ideas. Delacroix was a great friend of the musician Frédéric Chopin and his lover, the writer Georges Sand. And Musset was previously a lover of Sand.

It was good to hear that Paul Kildea’s new book on Chopin’s Piano is in part concerned with recovering Sand’s reputation (in popular writing that is, it’s been a task undertaken with relish by feminist academics for decades) from its traducement by followers of Chopin (and Musset, especially his brother Paul) who have trashed her literary reputation largely out of unthinking misogyny.**

So as well as reading de Musset’s work I’ve been reading Delacroix’s diaries (an ongoing project over the past few years***, Sand’s memoirs and Paul de Musset’s (very) partial biography of his brother.

Props for 'A Door (Should be Open or Shut)

Props for A Door (Should be Open or Shut)

What did I take from this reading into the new production? Our production is set in 1940s Soho and when I realised that the production of Absolute Hell  would be using pretty much the same setting, and running at the same time as us, I was rather fearful that people would think that I’d been inspired by that. But in fact I was inspired by de Musset’s own life.

De Musset himself was a drinker. A serious drinker. As in he died of it. But this aspect of his life doesn’t bleed into the literary works that he created so I decided that to make the connection with his life I’d update the play from an aristocratic salon to somewhere more modern. Since we had a pub bar as a set it seemed natural that the setting I’d update it to would be one of London’s drinking clubs of the 1930s/40s.

Although there are references to Soho stalwarts such as Francis Bacon the model I was actually thinking of wasn’t the Colony Club. Rather I had in mind Foppa’s, which appears in A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell. So we’re more in 40s Fitzrovia than 50s Soho. To someone who never knew either in their prime Fitzrovia offers a rather more literary locus which looks back to the 19th Century (and de Musset) rather than forward to the late twentieth and Jeffrey Bernard. Although the female lead is an artist.

A fun part of the production has been assembling props – a 40s Woodbine astray, an old-fashioned bottle of scotch, a cigarette case and a whiff of 40s in the costume of the characters. And the cast – Anna Rogers, Matt Griffin and Ruari Johnson – have been extraordinarily successful at bringing Musset’s characters to life in a faux-Fitzrovian setting.

If you’ve read this far why not book a ticket now to see the show? You can visit the Crouch End Players website or email cepfestival@crouchendplayers.co.uk 

Thanks to Paul Travis for the photo of the props, and for other shots of the preview night.

#Theatre #London #crouchendfestival

* I’ve written about him before and I’m looking forward to visiting the blockbuster show of his work at the Louvre later this month.

**You can listen to an excellent podcast with Kildea here.

***i.e. the French unedited edition lies next to my bed. And has done for some time! The Phaidon edition in English is what I’d recommend if you want to read pretty much the best writer on art of the nineteenth century as well as one of its key practitioners.

Translating Musset

June 3, 2018

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After having had a pretty good experience producing Corbyn Island in 2017 I found myself in the dull gloom of January turning over ideas for the Crouch End Festival in 2018. Again, it being a Festival piece, I wanted something relatively short and preferably fewer characters than the Island. If I was going to be directing it myself (a new experience) I thought it’d be a lot easier with less traffic to manoeuvre on stage.

I’d seen a production of Alfred de Musset’s Il Faut Qu’une Porte Soit Ouverte ou Fermée in Paris the previous autumn in a production by the Comédie Française. A one act two-hander, it concerned itself with an on-off relationship between two French aristocrats at a Parisian salon in the 1840s. The CF had updated it to contemporary France, setting the actor in a sculptor’s studio, while retaining (naturellement!) the original language of Musset’s masterpiece.

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Musset’s Confession – a classic of romantic literature

Further research revealed that de Musset hadn’t written the piece with the intention of staging it at all – rather it was theatre de fauteuil, that is ‘armchair theatre’ written to be read as a literary piece like a novel or a short story. But it had become established as a classic of the French theatrical repertoire by the end of the twentieth century, produced every year by the Comédie Française to the extent that it was part of the social calendar in the early twentieth century.

However, post-World War Two it was performed much less frequently. Presumably the market for rom coms about brittle aristocrats was in decline in the age of Camus, the theatre of the absurd and existentialism. In fact I beleive that the production that we saw was the first at the Comédie Française for some forty years.

So my challenge was how to make it relevant to a Crouch End Festival audience. My initial instinct was to make the couple same sex but to wangle Musset’s text into the correct shape to do that proved beyond my translation abilities. I gave it a few hours of grappling on the commute to Leicester and then gave up.

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The tool’s of the translator’s craft – a biography, an autobiography and a Pléiade edition of the original. All that’s missing is the Chamber’s dictionary.

I then toyed with the idea of just translating de Musset’s original and staging it as a work of art. I would designate a chair in the Great Northern for people to read a printed translation of the play which they could borrow from the bar. But then if I was going to the trouble of translating the play (a much simpler business than tackling Marivaux, though with the peril of ruining the exquisite poetry of de Musset’s language) I did rather see it acted out.

So I needed to find some other way to create tension in the potential pairing (or not) of these two characters. And I think I came up with a good solution. But to find out what that solution was you’ll have to come along to the show!

But I can tell you that I updated the action to 1948 London, with the characters now meeting in a private club on a wet Sunday afternoon.* I’ve added a third character of a barman, played by Ruari Johnson. The female lead is taken by the director of Corbyn Island, Anna Rogers, and a newcomer, Matt Griffin, takes on the role of her suitor.

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Part of the fun of staging a period piece is assembling (and drinking) the props.

This year we’re producing the show as part of the Crouch End Players’ contribution to the Festival with our show running with an original piece of writing by Jen Richardson, The Road Not Taken, as part of a rom-com double bill. Running time will be around an hour in total with a break for drinks.

Performances are again in the upstairs bar of the Great Northern Railway Tavern, who have once more proved to be excellent hosts, and take place on 15th, 16th and 17th June 2018 at 7pm and tickets (which are FREE!) can be obtained by emailing crouchendplayers@hotmail.com. More details are also available at the Festival website.

It’ll be the perfect evening out for World Cup widows and widowers but if you are a football fan don’t worry, the Great Northern will have the games on the big screen in their back garden and the shows are timed to make sure that you miss very little of the action from Neymar and his chums!

#Theatre #Comedy #London

*Yes, I know this has shades of Absolute Hell! But our production has an entirely different sensibility.

Crouch End Festival 2018

May 14, 2018

New Writing Image for Programme

Now that A Midsummer Night’s Dream has finished it’s time to flag up my own next production with the Crouch End Players as part of the Crouch End Festival. As part of an evening of new writing I’m directing a new translation of the French classic, A Door (Should Be Either Open Or Shut).

The original is a short play by the Romantic writer Alfred de Musset, perhaps most famous in this country for being the lover of Georges Sand which inspired both of them to write classic memoirs of their time together.

The original concerns the romantic tribulations of a pair of aristocrats in mid-ninteenth century Paris but I’ve updated it to post-War London with saltier dialogue and a real period feel.

The venue once more is the Great Northern Railway Tavern, who were such excellent hosts for Corbyn Island in 2017 and there will be three shows at 7pm on the 15th, 16th and 17th June. Tickets are free and available from crouchendplayers@hotmail.com. It would be great to see you there!

#theatre #London #Musset

A short guide to the London Library

October 21, 2017

Given that numbers of membership is falling I offer this post in the spirit of my (surprisingly!) popular Short guide to Southwark jury service to encourage people of letters to join the London Library. Such august institutions (the Library dates back to 1840 and counts a Who’s Who of literary genius among its past and present members) can seem rather intimidating to the outsider and my aim is to acknowledge that the Library definitely has higher expectations of its members’ behaviour than most contemporary libraries (yeah, I’m talking about you, the BL) but also offers delights not to be found anywhere else.

But I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, ‘Isn’t it expensive?’. Well, it’s not cheap. At £510 per annum for old farts and £255 for the under-25s it’s not a negligible sum. However, I hope that I can persuade you, dear reader, that at less than the price of a cup of coffee a day if you’re of an intellectual inclination you get plenty of bang for your buck. I would also point out that if, like me, you’re occasionally outside the perimeter of the academic community membership at Senate House is not cheap, and is far less salubrious than the digs in St James’s Square.

Of course this guide is my own, partial, opinion. Other members will value some services (for example the postal loan system for those outside commuting distance of Central London) that I rarely use if never. So where should one start? Oh yes,

Books

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Books in the idiosyncratic London Library shelving system

Yes, they have books at the London Library. Big deal you might think, I can get books for free at my college/university/Senate House/BL. I have to say, however, that the LL’s collection is outstanding. Its strengths lie in its antiquity and its scope. While not as broad as some (and I emphasise, some) university library collections its acquisition policy is rigorously academic and keeps abreast of the latest scholarship.

As a historian though I value the way in which you can trace the genealogy (to borrow a Foucauldian term) of a subject over time. For example, over the past year I’ve been conducting two research projects. The first, on Marivaux, I’ve discussed elsewhere in these posts. The second, on the history of the West India Committee, was greatly aided by the fact that the library has holdings of first editions by the WIC’s Chairman, published in the 1900s, which I could borrow and peruse in the comfort of my own home while prepping a (failed) application for a research grant.

Having such historic books on open access means that you can serendipitously stumble upon things in the library’s collection that are relevant to your research but of which you may have been entirely ignorant given the focus of most reading lists and scholarship on the up-to-date. And old books smell great. Yes, that’s a thing. The idiosyncratic shelving system is also, once you’ve mastered it, a pleasure to use.

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Old books. You gotta love ’em.

Journals

If you’re a student or hold an academic post you can take the fact that you have on-line access to thousands of journals rather for granted. As someone who has occasionally fallen out of the legit academic community the London Library’s e-library has proved a godsend with university department sized access to essential resources (for me) like JSTOR, the DNB, and the Bibliography of British and Irish Historiography. They also have access to some resources that aren’t on offer elsewhere, such as digital access to the Guardian and Observer archives. If you take a look at what there is in their e-library you’ll probably find plenty to get stuck into that isn’t on my radar.

Magazines

The reading room is a joy for the magazine and journal browser. If you want to keep up with new scholarship there are physical copies of the latest big journals there to consult. If you’re reading for pleasure you can pick up, say, Sight & Sound, Private Eye, the LRB etc etc. Laptops are barred (at the moment) in this room so it really is a place of peace and tranquillity, in which to read or snooze if you’ve an idle hour waiting for an appointment in town.

Desks

Every library member will have a favourite spot, my own is next to Who’s Who? up top in the St. James’s building where people rarely go. Though it can be a bit galling to toil up the stairs and find the desk occupied. Traditionalists will like the old school wooden desks dotted around among the history and literature collections.

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A trad desk by a window that opens. Luxury.

Modernistas my prefer the up-to-date environment to be find in the writing room, the art room or the lightwell in the basement. The point is that you get to choose your writing environment, which will be more intimate and calming than the vast plains of Humanities 1. And the earlier you get to work the likelier you are to find your optimal spot.

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A modern roost overlooking Masons Yard

Librarians

They offer expertise and courtesy. The best of their profession.

Food & Drink

Of course you can’t eat in the stacks. And why would you? If you’re frugal you can eat a packed lunch in the Members’ Room at the top of the building. However, there are plenty of places to go in the vicinity if you want to get refreshed or fed.

Personally, I’m happy to go to Eat for food if I’m aiming to go back to work afterwards, or Waterstone’s Café if I can’t get a seat in there. If it’s booze you’re after The Chequers in Masons Yard is a peerless pub in this part of London. ‘Hearty’ pub food, cheerful barmaids and good beer at a reasonable price for the area. Or if you’re feeling more lizardy why not snaffle along to Royal Opera Arcade?

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The Chequers, perfect for al freso supping in the summer. Cosy in cooler climes.

Events

The Library hosts a full programme of literary events throughout the year. With a good tranche of the leading lights of literature and the arts (for example, incoming President Sir Tim Rice) you won’t need to go to Wye to hear talks by leading writers.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the pluses of joining but I hope that it’s piqued your interest. If you want to dip your toe in the water the Library will arrange for someone to show you around to see if it’s the place for you. I urge you to give it a go and soon, like me, you’ll be putting aside the money for membership week by week.

Go here to see their membership page for details of how to join. If you’re a member of the Library already why not add a comment on your experience of being a member.

#London #Literature

 

The Crouch End Players and the Comédie-Italienne

May 24, 2017
Corbyn Island with Cast 2

Artwork © Nick Kobyluch

Since translating Marivaux’s comedy L’Ile des Esclaves for the Crouch End Festival I’ve been immersing myself in the culture of the early eighteenth century in France, partly with an eye on working on something more ambitious sometime in the future but also with my mind on costumes for Corbyn Island, the updated version that’s in production with the Crouch End Players. One way I felt that I could tie the modern adaptation to the work that inspired it would be by having two of my modern characters in fancy dress that had a whiff of Baroque France about them.

Naturally my thoughts turned to the Wallace Collection in Marylebone, whose building is a little bit of France in the West End. The 18th Century French rooms I’d tended to skip through on previous visits – all that flouncy, sleazy Boucher is a bit quease-inducing even if you have the reward of the more civilised Watteau alongside.  I prefer the more sober pleasures to be had in the company of Poussin and De Hooch.

So it was a surprise to find that not only did the Wallace have plenty of canvases depicting eighteenth century French fashion it actually had a picture of our antecedents as interpreters of Marivaux, the Comédie-Italiennes.

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The Italian Comedians by a Fountain, Nicolas Lancret

The painting depicts the actors in theatre dress with the stock characters Pierrot and Arlequin most obvious – each in his distinctive costume with Arlequin also masked. Arlequin appears in L’Ile des Esclaves as the slave to an Athenian aristocrat and displays all of the attributes that his audience would expect whichever production he appeared in. He’s a cheeky, rustic joker who has simple tastes – food, drink and the ladies, not necessarily in that order.

In Marivaux’s production he would have been played by Thomassin, the most famous Arlequin of his age and probably the man depicted by Lancret in the painting above. Our own Arlequin (who now goes under the name of TC, a little nod to the Assistant Coach of my football club, Ipswich Town) is played, I have to say magnificently, by Ric Lindley. He doesn’t have to perform the acrobatics that would have been expected of a seventeenth century Arlequin, nor did we direct him to adopt a ‘high-pitched voice like a parrot’ as described as being characteristic of the part by contemporary accounts.* But I think he definitely captures the earthy qualities of Arlequin, as well as his sentimentality and good-naturedness.

Lancret is one of those artists who seems to be permanently overshadowed (like de Hooch by Vermeer) by a more illustrious peer for seemingly no good reason. Watteau of course is the big name here but they had very similar backgrounds starting as apprentices under the theatre scenarist and artist Claude Gillot. For some reason Lancret seems to be treated as the apprentice to Watteau whereas in fact he was much more of a rival. So researching Lancret’s painting was a lot more difficult to do than if it had been Watteau’s. There are (justifiably) books by the yard on Watteau in the library but very little, even in French, on his fellow painter.

Lancret’s ability is shown by many canvases in the Wallace but is nowhere more apparent in London than in the marvellous Gallery A at the National. Tucked away either side of a large canvas from the studio of Boucher (isn’t that telling of Lancret’s neglect, he could probably chat to Guardi about it who has a little picture up the row) are four canvases depicting the four ages of man. Philosophical pieces describing childhood, youth, maturity and old age, they are little gems that deserve a wall of their own.

They also led me to reflect how one would depict the life cycle in the modern age. Childhood and youth separate? It hardly seems that a tot is out of nappies before it is turned into a consumer and given a screen to suck on. But then how to separate youth and maturity when middle-aged men go shopping in the supermarket in leisure wear and spend their cultural capital yarning the ins and outs of superhero franchises. So, it would seem, we go straight from youth to senility. But I digress.

True, Watteau was the pioneer of the fête galante but it was a genre that Lancret developed and proved to be a master of very quickly, as shown by the portrait of the Comédies-Italiennes. The vividness of their characters brought them into the modern age for me as I was standing in the Wallace and gave me the feeling that even if I’ve twisted and mangled Marivaux out of shape as an author, as a company we’re still communicating with these people through four centuries of theatre history and revivifying the roles that they created. It’s a tremendous credit to Ric, Sophie, Richard, Mia, Victoria, Mike, Nadia and Vic that they’ve taken this project on and given it life beyond the page. If only we had Lancret around to immortalise them.

#Theatre #London

*François Moreau, Le goût Italien dans la France tocaille: théatre, musique, peinture (Paris, PUPS: 2011), p. 40

The National Gallery basement and Arthur Ransome

May 15, 2017

The National, besides its usual haul of treasure, now has two must-see freebies to lure in the art hound (of which more in another post). And this in addition to the fact that the whole of the basement is now fully opened up to the public for the first time, or at least in this correspondent’s memory.

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The Fall, 458489 BSIDES. Better than the A-sides for some aficionados.

The basement, as well as housing the displaced works owing to the Michelangelo/Sebastiano exhibition taking place in some of the permanent galleries, now has a smattering of the NG’s artistic B-sides in ‘Room A’. Which makes it sound like it’s not worth the trouble to go down there. But that’s wrong. These are for the most part high quality B-sides, reminiscent of The Fall’s classic compilation, 458489, in that some of this stuff is better than what’s upstairs/on the flip side. Especially in the way that the work is curated – a broad sweep of art from the Renaissance to the late 19th Century in one room, allowing the eye to juxtapose subject, style and composition to delightful effect.

The central space is dominated by four grand canvases of battles from the French Revolutionary wars (Jemappes, Valmy, Montmirail and Hanau) by Vernet that are splendid in their drama and attention to detail, even if the carnage wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste. Those of a more peaceful bent might want to stroll around to Gentile Bellini’s Madonna and child, which for me is as handy a bit of god-stuff as any you’d fine in the Sainsbury Wing.

In between you’ll find a broad range of things to enjoy – the Impressionist Jongkind’s view of the Boulevard Port-Royal, Puvis de Chevanne’s Summer and a heap of Golden Age Dutch stuff were my own particular favourites until I came across a wall of Dutch seascapes from the nineteenth century. These were less familiar to me than the Van de Veldes (of which there are a couple here) from the seventeenth century, which is probably why they attracted my attention.

They are both by Paul Jean Clays, an artist of whom I knew nothing, and on seeing the first I noted in my book, ‘Ships Lying Off Dordrecht reminds me of Flushing in Ransome. Round boats coming up to meet us. Dutch flags, blue sky flash though grey cloud, can hear the seagulls and smell the rain approaching in the air.’

What I meant by ‘Flushing in Ransome’ is one of the greatest children’s books ever written (sadly overshadowed by its more famous predecessor) We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea by Arthur Ransome. In this story the Walker children (made famous by Swallows and Amazons) in a series of slightly improbable conjunctions of circumstance are swept out to the North Sea on a small yacht, the Goblin, where they are forced to cross to Holland, driven by the weather and their own determination not to fuck things up (ok, that isn’t exactly how it’s phrased in the book). If you don’t want to know how things work out for then skip the next paragraph or two!

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Ransome is also an underestimated illustrator.

After a perilous crossing in hideous weather and with a cute cat picked up along the way they are guided into Flushing by a peaceable Dutch pilot, who is flabbergasted to find that they’d made the trip all by themselves and not as they pretended to him under the guidance of a master who is too tired to emerge to talk to the pilot in person. But the real joy comes when they realise that their father by coincidence is on his way back to Blighty via Holland on leave from the Navy and he leaps ashore from his ferry to complete a happy family reunion.

I once heard someone on Radio 4 say that there was no politics in Ransome’s children’s fiction. Let’s  leave aside the fact that the whole adventure is predicated on the disruptive shock of modernity in the form of a symbol of modernity (a motor bus) knocking over a representative of tradition (Jim Brading, the Goblin’s skipper, who is no fan of motors on the road or in boats and romanticises the pre-modern technology of sail).

Putting aside the symbolism involved in the story in the struggle of tradition v modernity the contemporary political context for this novel, while never stated, is ever present. The book was published in 1937, a time when anxiety about British dominance of the sea was not just focussed on the North Sea, where the story takes place, but also in the Pacific, where Walker père has been stationed and the Japanese threat is just as obvious as the Nazi one closer to home (to readers in the 30s at least, nowadays it seems that the British prefer to forget that WW2 was a war of imperialism as much as national survival). Ransome’s story then can be read as an exhortation to the young to be stoic in the face of adversity, and a reassurance of the reserves of British resources far flung around the globe to come to the rescue of those struggling in the motherland.

Looking around for academic analysis of the Swallows & Amazons series I’ve yet to find much. It would seem an admirable project for a PhD to me, especially as as far as I can see most writing about Ransome has concentrated on his role as a sometime spy during the Russian Revolution and beyond.

Anyway, with all this going through my head it was with great delight that I saw that the pendant piece to Ships Lying Off Dordrecht was entitled Ships Lying Off Flushing.

What joy. What simple joy.

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#NationalGallery #Ransome


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