Saturday, 4 June 2011

In truth I know not why I am so sad (actually I do)

Question: what play by Shakespeare has as its opening scene an Elvis impersonator singing Viva Las Vegas?

What do you mean, you don't know? It's obvious isn't it? The Merchant of Venice! Because this play is about risk, which could be equated with gambling; and gambling happens in Las Vegas, where there is a miniature mock-up of Venice. You see it all makes perfect sense.

At least it does to Rupert Goold, whose new production in the newly refurbished theatre at Stratford has such a blue chip investment as Patrick Stewart's Shylock that he thinks he can do any old thing on stage and get away with it. And to some extent he can. Stewart and Scott Handy, who plays Antonio, do it pretty straight (Handy was Malcolm to Stewart's Macbeth in Goold's Chichester production, which was later filmed for TV).

Elvis turned out to be Lancelot Gobbo, who broke into song on many occasions, though it was unnerving to have the real thing twice on tape because the actor was no vocal match for the King. So a Mississippian servant but Antonio's hangers-on seem to be mainly Chicago gangsters. And Portia and Nerissa are Texan bimbos presenting a TV game show called Destiny in which contestants have to choose the right casket to win the prize of Portia as wife.

We did at least get Shakespeare's text (somewhat abbreviated) between show-stopping numbers, unlike the ghastly Knee High version of Cymbeline at the Swan a few years ago, which began with a transvestite Mrs Mop showing us her holiday photos from the Canaries.

Some of it worked. The trial scene is practically director-proof. But at the very end, in Belmont, when all has been revealed about the lawyers' disguises, Goold chooses to have an interminable coda in which Portia totters and swivels on one high-heeled shoe in a spotlight. Signifying what, pray?

The audience left very subdued, as I think you are supposed to at the end of Merchant, but not because you have endured that meaningless and embarrassing little display. You should be thinking about the enforced conversion of Shylock, about revenge, and perhaps about why Venetians Jews were moneylenders who charged interest.

There were many young people in the audience having a good time. And the Merchant is a comedy. But it isn't a farce. And I hate the idea - which lies behind Horrible Histories and their ilk - that in order to make something gripping to children it has to be in some way OTT, either gross or hilarious. So that's why I'm sad.

Sunday, 15 May 2011


One of the lovely things about living in West Oxfordshire is that we are less than an hour's drive from Stratford-upon-Avon. And we have taken full advantage of that, packing in as much Shakespeare as we possibly can, thrilling to Michael Boyd's athletic Histories in the Courtyard, watching the building site in front of the Memorial Theatre give way to new gardens and sampling the many ways of fitting in a meal before or after plays.

But this Saturday we saw something that was only "almost Shakespeare" or "maybe Shakespeare": Cardenio, Shakespeare's "lost play" re-imagined and directed by by Gregory Doran. As a production it was an absolute triumph, convincingly Spanish, for a play supposed inspired by Cervantes and acted with vigour and energy.

It's a play that might have been written by Shakespeare and Fletcher in 1612; no manuscript survives but in 1727, Lewis Theobald wrote another play, Double Falsehood, or the Distressed Lovers from a text a couple of removes from the original, which was written in the same year that Don Quixote was first published in English. So a list of illustrious ancestors and now two Godfathers: not just Doran but Antonio Alamo, a Spanish dramaturge, whose hand is noticeable throughout.

It helps if you know your Shakespeare. The false friend who falls for his companion's  love was around as early as Two Gentlemen of Verona. Here Cardenio's beloved Luscinda is immediately lusted after by Fernando, younger son of Duke Ricardo. But not until after Fernando has had his wicked way with Dorotea, the daughter of a wealthy farmer, and then immediately wearied of her.

Echoes of Measure for Measure's Mariana in the moated grange here and of All's Well that ends Well in Dorotea's pursuit of her faithless lover while dressed as a shepherd boy.

All four lovers are strongly played. Alex Hassell as Fernando is much more flamboyant than Oliver Rix in the title role but that is probably because Cardenio himself is rather wet; Rix showed in the flamenco that replaced the jig at the end that he could be just as fiery.

Lucy Briggs-Owen was a very lush Luscinda - as beautiful as Uma Thurman and with perfect diction but oh! the endless gurning! She bit her lips, stuck her tongue in her cheek and rolled her eyes like a veteran of EastEnders or Hollyoaks. I hope she'll drop these mannerisms soon. Pippa Nixon as Dorotea seemed much more classically gifted, like a young Dorothy Tutin.

It was a very strong ensemble with Christopher Godwin especially adorable as Cardenio's old father Don Camillo.

So, as far as themes and construction go, it could well have appealed to Shakespeare (though I think he would have had the two women meet and conspire in Fernando's comeuppance). But what about the language? Some false notes here, as when Cardenio explains his difficulties to Fernando:

"The which I dare not mention to my dad,
Fearing lest he won't consent thereto."

Rightly mocked by Shakespeare scholar Katherine Duncan-Jones in her TLS review.

But for a vibrant and impressive evening in the Swan at Stratford for lovers of Shakespeare it's a wonderful experience.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

A Green Thought in a Green Shade

I'm very bad at doing nothing. Very bad indeed. I'm very good at footling, faffing and generally wasting time. But not nothing.

Today I had a lovely walk in the sunshine of two hours including coffee break, with just one other person. Came back and faffed and footled for an hour before taking my (green salad) lunch out into the garden to eat on my green and white swing seat.

It was blissful. And after lunch I MADE myself lie on the swing seat for another half hour, not writing, not on the computer, not listening to the radio just looking at all the shades of green in my back garden and glinting in the eyes of one of my cats, who was sitting on the back of the swing seat.

(Until she burrowed under my - green - cotton jumper)

Then I came indoors and wrote a book review.

But I'm quite proud of that half hour. I am not very good at living in the moment and enjoying the now, even though I realise I am greatly blessed in my life, love, family and work. It's my birthday tomorrow and just for today I thought I would rejoice - nay, wallow - in the pleasure of lying in a green garden on a sunny day, without feeling any guilt. It worked!

May you all know many such moments.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Wedding Planner

My middle daughter is getting married here in October and we are already deep in "arrangements." Not being experts in this area, we have a guidebook which tells us who should do what and when.

Mother of the bride has some very specific responsibilities, most of which she won't do because others have already taken them on. So I don't have to arrange "transport" and "entertainment" for instance, since the groom is rather interested in those.

But choosing an outfit, losing enough weight to wear it and finding a hat that will count as wedding-y enough without making me look like a mushroom, are tasks I cannot delegate.

If you add this to writing the current book by the end of July, doing promotion, including a month-long Blog Tour, for David, reviewing other people's books, attending the Bologna Book Fair and setting up a new joint blog venture, of which more here anon, I think I shall be rather busy.

Oh and championing libraries, of course. I went to the Parish Council Meeting on the Bampton Library this week, where the County Councillor with responsibility for libraries could not answer my questions and the Director (ditto) was inaudible. There were 110 people there from babies in buggies to veteran library-users with walking aids.

The elected member and officer both seemed to think that a/ libraries were solely about books, so Mobile libraries could solve the problems of delivery and b/ if you own a car you won't mind driving it further to a "hub" library. Have they not heard of global warming or is that someone else's department?

Friday, 18 February 2011

Writing again

This is not me and this is not the way I write. This is Charles Dickens but look at that girly hair! However I do not have long hair. I also do not write longhand. Or with a quill pen, or on a wax tablet or a typewriter. And you know what? My hero, Dickens, if he were alive today, would do just what I do, I'm sure of it.

He would compose on a laptop - or an iPad or some other modern form of tablet. Because he was prolific and he could have produced if not more novels then the ones he did write more quickly. And I reckon he would have loved that.

My week began with an interview of over three hours for a major magazine. Watch this space for details. But I had to say how I do what I do and it got me thinking.  I've composed at least ten full-length novels straight on to my laptop - and had about five different laptops in that time. I do write notes in longhand and family trees, index cards for characters and my timeline. But if I want the story to flow, it's a keyboard for me now.

Then I got the first proof copy of David, my new historical novel for Bloomsbury - out in July so  a bit more space-watching. And did a rush job of reviewing someone else's novel. All very well but what was stopping me getting started on my own next book? I had the notes, the reference books, the card index and a board covered with post-it notes but something was holding me back.

I'm not like Douglas Adams, bless him. I don't like the whooshing sounds of deadlines going past. I started as a journalist and the deadline is sacrosanct. And I knew I must start this week at the latest or imperil my ability to deliver on time. But plunging into a new book is a big commitment. You will live with those characters for five or six months and become absent-minded with your family and friends, often drifting off into the world of your book while you are talking to them.

And I know I have a lot of smaller things to write in order to promote David, as well as tinkering with future proposals if there is to be another book after this. So why fritter away time on Facebook and Twitter and reading other people's blogs? Because I can. And I think Charles Dickens might do the same if he were around now too.

"@johannaharness Created a good character called Micawber today #amwriting," I can imagine him Tweeting.

"OMG, wrote 5,000 words," might be his FB Status.

"#ff @MARYMHOFFMAN - she seems a good sort" (I wish!)

My point is that all that faffing around I do has become as much a part of my creative process as any other writing habit. And I HAVE started. Prologue and Chapter One written and printed out, characters re-visited, new ones introduced. I'm on my way.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

A heartening piece of news

You can't get away from libraries, even on this personal blog! I have been covering the movement against cuts and closures in Oxfordshire over on but this post is about a bit of good news.

I told on Radio Oxford a week or so ago and repeated at the Oxfordshire Anti-Cuts Alliance (OACA) meeting last week the story of my local secondary school. Council Leader Keith Mitchell made the fatuous suggestion that the public might use school libraries because "every secondary school in the county has one." I challenged this with the story about my local one.

Carterton Community college had a library but the Headteacher threw out all the books and installed IT equipment in the space. Now, I have nothing against IT equipment. I love my laptop, I blog, Tweet, use Facebook, Skype-text daily and generally embrace the new technology. (I have a Kindle too) But I also have books in every room of my house and owe my career as a writer largely to the free, well-stocked school and public libraries I encountered in my childhood and adolescence.

After the OACA meeting someone came up to me - and I'm cursing that I didn't catch her name - with a heart-warming story. What I had said about Carterton was true, she said, but that was done under a previous Head. Now they were re-stocking the library and re-opening it in September! I couldn't be more pleased.

No guesses where my review copies will be going in future!

Friday, 31 December 2010

Why I don't celebrate New Year's Eve

36 years ago today my mother died. It was only four months after my father's death and she had spent her first (only!) Christmas as a widow with us in North London. She went back to her home with my sister and a few days later I got the devastating phone call.

Seven years earlier one of her best frinds - the mother of my best friend in my girlhood - had died, so it was already a sad day in our calendar.

I can remember celebrating New Year's Eve on only a handful of occasions - all sad or disappointing in some way: the time my boyfriend went back to his secret fiancée, the one with gay friends when everyone wanted to kiss my husband, the Hogmanay on Princes Street in Edinburgh when we stood around in the cold waiting for something to happen, the Millennium Eve under Big Ben - actually that one was the best, with great fireworks.

Tonight we'll have a home-made Chinese meal with our youngest and her partner, drink some good wine by the log fire and maybe stay up till midnight, maybe not. But I'll think of my mother, who never met her grandchildren, and was such a loving woman and a great cook. To her I owe many Celtic qualities to do with hospitality and imagination.

Thank you, Ivegh Lassiter.