Unknown Pleasures: looking at Fregoli’s Pleasure Ground

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[This show has been sitting at the back of my brain since the end of August, and a review has been gestating ever since. Apologies that it’s so overdue, but it may as well surface before the show heads to Dublin and Boyle…]

Fregoli Theatre Company have been a mainstay of Galway’s theatrical scene for a good number of years. One early memory that I have of experiencing Galway theatre was watching At A Loss at the Jerome Hynes One Act festival as a precocious eighteen-year-old first year student in college, and telling its director (and Fregoli’s artistic director) Maria Tivnan after the show that I really liked the piles of boxes that she used as a set. (Well, I was eighteen at the time, of course I’d focus on the boxes.) One striking thing about that show was its jumps in time, its jumps between characters with very little effort, and its very minimalist design — those boxes were dumped on stage by the cast at the outset, thus creating their own set. That show was performed soon afterwards under the official Fregoli banner for 2009’s Mosaic of Dreams, where it was positioned alongside other one-acts that expressed a similar style: an ensemble of actors shifting between characters, space, and time, and a spartan set that would facilitate and assist with this stretch of the imagination. Given that the company have been a ubiquitous presence on the stage over the last number of years, when they were announced as the Michael Diskin bursary award winner one couldn’t help but be surprised that they hadn’t been on the Town Hall Theatre main stage yet, or that they hadn’t performed a two-act play before. And the play that the company brought to the stage was Pleasure Ground, a new play by one of its ensemble members, Jarlath Tivnan. The play in performance espouses Fregoli’s usual performance style and ethos, but given the longer running time and larger performance space, the company are allowed to experiment with other forms, resulting in the company’s most ambitious, and most mature, production to date.

Our storytellers for the evening are four twentysomethings, either returning to or stuck in their own respective Ballygobackwards – the gentle, Riverdance-loving farmer Brendan (Peter Shine); the unfulfilled shop attendant Linsey (Kate Murray); the successful actress Aisling (Eilish McCarthy); and the corrosive businessman Evan (Jarlath Tivnan). All of them congregate for a funeral of a man none of them really knew, not even his ex-girlfriend Aisling or his former best friend Evan. Whereas the first half largely focuses on the four’s personal narratives and their own connections, tangential or otherwise, to the dead man David, and also largely relies on the familiar shifts between characters/space/time, the second half turns this on its head. The four characters find themselves at the local playground, the Pleasure Ground, for the second half of the play, and it’s here at this playground that the play takes a turn for the realism – the play never once leaves that particular time and space from then on, nor do the actors alternate between different characters at will. What’s most important here is how these four people connect, and in some cases reconnect, with each other in the moment. When you think about it, connections, whether they are lost or found, are what’s key to the play – Brendan dreams of asking the Aldi checkout girl on an date (‘Her name is Eva… she’s German I’m sorry, but I think she’s grand’); Aisling tortures herself over the emotionally unavailable David; Evan mourns the loss of David’s friendship, long before he committed suicide; and Linsey embarks on an affair with David’s dad, promising Aisling that she’ll be ‘ending it’ very soon, but we’re not sure if she actually will. But the most important connection, it seems, is the one that the four create among themselves, as they address their petty rivalries and hostilities over cheap Aldi biscuits and alcohol over one night. Linsey takes Brendan under her wing, and gives the lonely farmer the courage to ask Eva out. Aisling and Evan share their grief over losing David. There’s a sense that these characters might just begin to move forward — but, as the play closes, it’s ambiguous as to whether all of them will.

The play is uproariously funny, with some very strong performances – young Brendan’s discovery of Riverdance (‘LOOK AT THIS MAN DADDY, HE’S WEARING WATER’) and his love of Aldi are comic highlights, and Shine’s absolute sincerity as an actor is crucial for this to work. His desire for the simple pleasures in life contrasts with Murray’s Linsey, who holds McCarthy’s Aisling responsible for ‘stealing’ her dreams of becoming an actor – Murray flits between absolute frustration and complete naivety, and her comic timing is just as evident as her ability to draw pathos. It could be said that Tivnan plays the least sympathetic character, but it soon becomes evident that Evan’s viciousness in dealing with other people is a self-defence mechanism – his pain at losing David to Trevor, ‘the Other Best Friend’ is something that has pained him for years, and his guilt at not returning David’s call in the lead-up to his death continues to plague him. McCarthy portrays Aisling as a woman whose own pain is kept under wraps, and which slowly begins to unravel, thus challenging Linsey’s resentment of her.

Pleasure Ground is essentially a snapshot of the Irish millennial generation, and Tivnan captures this not just through highlighting these characters’ own nostalgia for the past (he throws several cultural touchstones at us, not just Riverdance but the killing of Billy Meehan in Fair City forms the cornerstone for a rather excellent gag), but also through exploring their own complicated relationships with family, friends, lovers, each other, and with a stifling landscape that they all call ‘home’. It’s rare to see a show like this on a regional stage outside of Dublin.

Pleasure Ground is a funny, heart-breaking, honest play that deserves to be seen. It’s touring to Dublin and Boyle in December, and it really is worth your while seeing this show. Get your tickets for this one, trust me.

Irish Women Making Shakespeare #WakingTheFeminists

Aisling O'Sullivan as Henry V in DruidShakespeare (dir. Garry Hynes).
Aisling O’Sullivan as Henry V in DruidShakespeare (dir. Garry Hynes). Photo by Matthew Thompson.

Okay, so this is a quick post (out of so many scheduled blog posts — long gestating theatre reviews and other thought pieces come to mind). So the #WakingTheFeminists movement has jumped into hyperspeed, with a public meeting called for this Thursday at 1pm at the Abbey Theatre. I’m concerned that the Abbey are calling it a debate when they clearly know that they have to address gender inequality in the theatre, but that’s by the by. Anyway, I’ll be at the meeting, and if you’re in Ireland and concerned about this, I hope you will be there too.

Perhaps it is because I am so very predictable, but I began to wonder how many female theatre practitioners, or any practitioners who are not white cisgender men, have directed canonical works at theatres at the Abbey. More specifically, I started thinking about Shakespeare performance directed by women based in Ireland, and at the Abbey.

Hear me out here — sure, we don’t have a tradition of performing Shakespeare so entrenched as that of the UK’s. But the reason why I’m so interested in Irish Shakespeare in relation to #WakingTheFeminists is how, more than ever, Shakespeare performance and its criticism must be feminist, and it must be intersectional. Feminism and Shakespeare/early modern performance aren’t necessarily exclusive terms — I think of Harriet Walter and the Women’s Group at the RSC in the 1980s (ask any feminist Shakespearean about Clamorous Voices and you will receive an enthusiastic response), I think of Maria Aberg’s productions for the RSC over the last few years, I think of Walter’s collaborations with Phyllida Lloyd and Clean Break at the Donmar. And in terms of research, I think of the work of Sarah Werner, Susan Bennett, Kim Solga, Pascale Aebischer, Nora Williams, Miranda Fay Thomas, and Sophie Duncan. There are more of us than you think.

To illustrate what I’m trying to say, I’m copying in Solga’s definition of early modern performance studies (which is what I, and many others, refer to our field as). It’s a definition that speaks to feminist activism, that speaks to the present day:

Early modern performance studies examines the work of Shakespeare and his contemporaries by exploring in rich detail the cultural contexts in which that work was made, and also thinks about contemporary productions of early modern play texts within the cultural contexts of the producers (that is, you and me). Our culture has a seemingly tireless fascination with four-hundred year old plays; my work asks why that is, and digs deeply into the kinds of contemporary messages (for example, about men and women, about violence, about space and place) we use those plays to communicate to one another now.

I guess what’s most relevant about that quote is the latter part: how early modern performance speaks to the here and now, and what messages we send out through the production of these plays. And it is my belief that you cannot stage Shakespeare, or any early modern play, without critically engaging with its misogyny, racism, anti-Semitism, and the dominance of its male characters. This is not a world where The Merchant of Venice can be performed as a Good v Evil romp, or where you can play Othello or Aaron in blackface, or where you can brush over the attempted rape in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, or where you can take Kate’s last speech in The Taming of the Shrew for granted. A feminist approach towards performing Shakespeare is absolutely crucial and necessary for the theatre. Not every Shakespeare performance gets it right, or thinks about it that much, however — but it’s been done before, and it can continue now.

So, what about Ireland? Druid and Rough Magic are the first to come to mind. I could write all day about DruidShakespeare being one of the most radical and wonderfully feminist Shakespearean productions I’ve seen in a long time, but I won’t because that’s for the thesis. Lynne Parker’s directed Macbeth for the Lyric (and as for the Lyric, let’s not forget Mary O’Malley), as well as directing The Taming of the Shrew as set in rural Ireland for Rough Magic. Selina Cartmell’s work for Siren includes her landmark Titus Andronicus and Ben Power’s A Tender Thing, an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. We’ve also got some fantastic actresses who have played Shakespearean roles too: Natalie Radmall-Quirke, Aisling O’Sullivan, Derbhle Crotty, to name a few. That’s not an exhaustive list, but it’s a start. (There’s a lot to be said about the cultural politics of staging Shakespeare in this country, and how this ties in here, but that would take even longer and… look, wait until I finish my thesis, okay?)

As for the Abbey, I decided to have a look at the statistics. In its history, there have been twenty-four Shakespearean productions, including Joe Dowling’s upcoming Othello. Some of the artistic directors have had a bash: Dowling and Patrick Mason, for example, as well as other directors such as Jimmy Fay, Jason Byrne, and Wayne Jordan. But out of those numbers, only one woman has directed Shakespeare for the Abbey over 110 years of the theatre’s history: that’s Cartmell, who directed King Lear in 2013.

I’m not saying that men can’t direct feminist Shakespeare (in fact, Jordan must be applauded for his productions of Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet — the latter performed at the Gate — and their sensitivity towards patriarchial and heteronormative power structures). But only one female director, in so long a history? That’s embarrassing, really.

That needs to change. Feminism can reinvigorate Shakespearean performance, that’s clear. And there needs to be more room for women, for other genders, to explore how this can be possible. And on Thursday, the Abbey has the chance to make that space, because Irish Shakespeare performance, and Shakespeare performance in general, is not the provision of white cisgender men.

…How did we get here?

Greetings, everyone. I have not written here in a long time (a lot has happened — we have marriage equality and gender recognition, for one), so I’ll do one of those update posts á la Sophie Duncan’s at Clamorous Voice (you all should read that blog, as it is indeed Very Good).

Anyway.

1. I am about ten months into my PhD. I did a bunch of writing this year, passed my GRC meeting in May (that’s Graduate Research Committee, fact fans, kinda like a progress panel), and thus launched into four to five weeks of SO. MUCH. TRAVELLING.

2. The first was a trip to BritGrad at the Shakespeare Institute, which is generally brilliant every year — I always come away from it having spent quality time with old friends and having got to know excellent new friends. It’s essentially a holiday at this stage. Second trip was the STR New Researchers’ Network symposium (I’m a committee member, fnarr) at the Shard, which I came away from loving all of the delegates and all of my fellow committee members, and also feeling very hopeful for the future of theatre and performance studies. Every panel I went to was great, and taught me something new. Third was, following a weekend at Dublin Pride with friends, a trip far down south to Skibbereen in west Cork. I stayed in a very swish B&B, or what my housemate called ‘a sex B&B’. (FYI, I did not have anyone to have sex with in that B&B.) The reason I was down there was that Druid’s latest production, DruidShakespeare, was performing there for a night, and the thesis dictated that I would basically follow that production as much as I could over the summer. Other than the show being Very Good (I’ve seen it several times now), I came away from it thinking that all theatre shows could do with serving free tea at intervals. And then I went to New York to speak at a symposium about the show and then got to see it in the city there too. Which is all pretty good. (All I need to do now is get tickets to see it in Kilkenny — performing at Richard II’s digs! — and then the odyssey will be over for now.)

3. I arrived back from New York on Monday, attended the launch of the Yeats & the West exhibition (you should check it out, it’s so pretty), saw Luck Just Kissed You Hello with my friend Chris that night, and went to see St. Vincent on Tuesday night. The only downside is that now, my body is beginning to revolt, and as a result I am experiencing All Of The Jet Lag. The worst part is the sudden feeling of constantly being off-balance, so now I am in my bed, trying not to lift my head too high, and attempting to strategically drink cups of tea without lifting my head too much. We’ll see how things go. I would like to be able to stand in the shower and not feel nauseous.

4. My department are organising this conference next week and you should go because it’ll be great and I’ll be volunteering at it and being overly chirpy at the registration desk. Oh, and it’s GIAF. Hurrah.

5. I really don’t want to get on another plane for another long while but then I remembered I’ve to go to London at the end of next month. Damn.

6. My tea is now cold. Shit.

On Schaubuehne Hamlet at the Dublin Theatre Festival and ‘real Shakespeare’

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(Photo credit: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images)

Last night I attended the Schaubuehne Berlin’s production of Hamlet at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre (forever the Grand Canal!), as directed by its artistic director Thomas Ostermeier. As an exercise in curiosity, this afternoon I decided to look up a number of reviews of the production from its London debut in 2011, as well as its premiere here. The language used in many of them are similar: ‘not for purists’, ‘[a] Shakespearean play — but not as you know it’, ‘Hamlet was never meant to be funny’ (someone’s never read the play so), ‘Ostermeier makes sure nothing about the play is sacred’. Et cetera.

I find this interesting, and a little bit problematic. Of course, we say ‘It’s Shakespeare, but not as you know it’ about several productions that come along (when, in fact, yes you already have seen three productions of the same play using that very same idea). But really, what *is* ‘Shakespeare’? What is ‘real Shakespeare’? It’s an interesting question, and one that those of us working on Shakespearean afterlives think about and interrogate, a lot. Does it necessarily need to be Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen standing on the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and in which no one deviates from the script AT ALL to be considered as ‘real Shakespeare’?

By using such language about Ostermeier’s production, and other such adaptations, we run the risk of filing them under Not Real Shakespeare, But Different. As a departure from the norm. As an experiment, after which we go back to the RSC afterwards and talk about how Radical and Shocking and Different that was. Whatever ‘real Shakespeare’ is right now, we certainly need to be a bit more inclusive in our talking about it.

Ostermeier’s Hamlet is visceral, disgusting, dirty, hilarious, and defiant in its execution. Ostermeier writes in his programme note that ‘my hypothesis is that Hamlet can’t hide behind the mask of madness that he puts on at the beginning of the play, that, on the contrary, his madness takes possession of him.’ And so, Lars Eidinger’s Hamlet is so enveloped in his madness from beginning to end: whether it’s squawking at Polonius (Robert Beyer), interrupting his reunion with Rosencrantz (Franz Hartwig) and Guildenstern (Sebastian Schwarz) with a call and response with the audience (or ‘party people’ as he calls us), or switching between showing Ophelia (Jenny Konig, effectively shifting between this role and Gertrude) affection and shoving her on the ground and covering her with earth. This is a Hamlet who’s terrifying and unpredictable in his actions — yet also blisteringly funny, and quite unheroic too.

Hamlet (Lars Eidinger).
Hamlet (Lars Eidinger), resplendent in Hawaiian shirt and muddy face

Eidinger’s performance, and perhaps the production as a whole, also brought to mind a conversation that came up in my class on Irish drama just last week about how we, as audience members, are socially programmed to automatically listen to the most attractive person on stage, regardless if they’re the hero or not (this was a class on Oscar Wilde, naturally). Usually, with Hamlet, there’s a period during productions of the play where he wears Mad Clothes And Doesn’t Care If You Like It Or Not, but by the end of the closet scene he’s clean and wearing ‘acceptable’ clothes again, and towards the end of the play, he is suitably ‘ready’ to engage in the duel with Laertes. None of that here. I believe that this production turns that compulsion of ours on its head: Eidinger writhes in the mud, even eating it several times; strips down to his underwear and covers himself and others in red juice; wears a fat suit and a stringy fake beard; and by the latter end of the evening, he’s sat at the table on-stage, wearing a tacky and dirty Hawaiian shirt and unapologetically wiping his face with dirt. His madness is real, and it’s not pretty or glamorised. You don’t want to look at him, because he’s doing disgusting/unclean/unsavoury things, but here’s the thing — he’s Hamlet. You can’t not pay attention to Hamlet. It’s not just limited to him, though: our first introduction to Horatio (Schwarz) has him stuffing his face with food to the point where it spills all over his face, Ophelia drowns in plastic, and Claudius (Urs Jucker) and Polonius frequently throw cans of lager around the stage with abandon, their spray going everywhere. The mess gets everywhere, and contaminates everyone.

This production, for me, was Shakespearean, or adequately Shakespearean, or whatever you want to call it. Who knows what ‘real Shakespeare’ actually is — I’m not sure if I ever want to know. But Ostermeier captures the spirit of the play and poses questions about it in new and very imaginative ways. And so, surely such work should be the norm, and not the exception, in Shakespearean performance?

REVIEW [Or First Impressions?]: Richard II, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, October 2013.

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(c) Photo by Jillian Edelstein, design by RSC Visual Communications.

[A word of caution: if you intend on seeing Richard II and want all of its surprises kept intact, then abandon hope, all ye who enter here.]

When it was first announced that David Tennant was to play Richard II in Greg Doran’s production at the RST, I was quite excited. To start with, Richard II is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. It’s so beautifully written, and also so very moving: I remember reading it for the first time around this time last year, sitting in the Shakespeare Institute library with my jaw agape because I had just finished reading 3.2. It’s where Richard fully realises the extent of Bolingbroke’s uprising, where he recognises the tide is turning against him, that the fact that he is ‘anointed’ won’t save him. And it culminates in that wonderful ‘hollow crown’ speech: ‘Our lands, our lives and all are Bolingbroke’s,’ he says, ‘And nothing can we call our own but death | And that small model of the barren earth | Which serves as paste and cover to our bones’. It dawns on you, the reader, that Richard is about to lose everything, and nothing he can own (not even his life) can be his anymore. The veneer begins to slip, you begin to see the pathetic little man behind the crown and the sceptre, and you can’t help but feel for him. I’ve never had a play have such an immediate emotional impact on me, just on the page.

But anyway. Back to 2013. I was excited about this production. But for some strange reason, I could not place Tennant in the role. I knew that he would be GOOD, at least, but I could not discern how he would approach it at all. I guess this wasn’t helped by the poster that was released, which now adorns the programme cover: a portrait of the actor sat back in a chair with the Westminster Portrait behind him (as seen above). It doesn’t really offer any clues as to what the aesthetic of the production may be, compared to other RSC productions such as this year’s As You Like It (which displays two muddy lovers kissing at Glastonbury, hinting at the festival-y, summery setting) and 2012’s Richard III (which emphasised the dominance of the female characters as they surrounded Jonjo O’Neill’s Richard as he sat atop a globe). But a picture of Tennant in jeans and trainers with a painting? What does that mean? Is it just emphasising the star quality of the production more than anything?

I guess this is the part of the review where I reassure the reader that Tennant is actually quite good in the role. He starts off as rather elevated, impossible to read, and also quite unpredictable and petty (his throwing down of his sceptre during Bolingbroke and Mowbray’s duel is played on a whim, almost out of sheer boredom). But as any good Richard does, he slides towards earning our sympathies as the production progresses: he’s particularly on fine form during 3.2, as we watch him break down in front of all his followers. I found myself constantly comparing his performance to that of Ben Whishaw’s in The Hollow Crown throughout the first half: whereas both portrayals present an effeminate, flighty, and fey king, Tennant’s differs to that of Whishaw’s in his playfulness and aggression: he pushes Emma Hamilton’s Queen around, ordering her to ‘be merry’, and violently grabs Michael Pennington’s John of Gaunt, despite the latter being on his deathbed. Whishaw’s aloof portrayal almost resembles some kind of Regina George figure (but, as Poly Gianniba points out, he clearly doesn’t want the responsibilities he’s been shackled with), but Tennant plays a rather child-like king, who veers from throwing temper tantrums to revealing an acute vulnerability when all is lost. And whereas the king’s homosexuality is only hinted at in The Hollow Crown, Tennant’s Richard forges a close connection to Oliver Rix’s Aumerle, sharing a tender kiss with him at Flint Castle. It’s this relationship that dominates this production: Aumerle takes the place of Exton in murdering the king, and his divided loyalties to Richard and his father (and additionally, Bolingbroke) torment him. Rix is particularly good in conveying the character’s pain, and compliments Tennant’s performance well: his slowly dissolving into tears as Richard ponders ‘What must the king do now? Must he submit?’ is quite poignant, leading to the tender moment that they share. Swinging their legs over the parapet, they are two boys standing alone against the world, with nothing else but each other.

Rehearsals for Richard II: (l-r) Richard II (David Tennant), Aumerle (Oliver Rix), York (Oliver Ford Davies)
Rehearsals for Richard II: (l-r) Richard II (David Tennant), Aumerle (Oliver Rix), York (Oliver Ford Davies). (c) Photograph by Kwame Lestrade.

Other than Tennant and Rix, there are some excellent performances from the rest of the cast: some have quite limited stage time, but still make an impact. Jane Lapotaire as the Duchess of Gloucester becomes the production’s pre-show, draping herself across her dead husband’s coffin — and continues to do so for the entirety of 1.1. Whereas I wonder if Doran wanted to get the most that he possibly could out of Lapotaire and of this small part, it works in that it centralises Gloucester’s death amidst the business that Mowbray and Bolingbroke have in the first scene. Thus, it provides a smooth transition to the following scene that Lapotaire shares with Pennington’s Gaunt, which is in itself quite tender and affecting. Naturally, Pennington goes on to completely nail ‘This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle, | This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars’: raging against the dying of the light, it’s a performance of frustration, guilt, and regret. Hamilton is quite touching as the Queen, completely oblivious to her husband’s dominance over and disinterest in her. Oliver Ford Davies is not just funny as York, but can be also quite cruel towards his onstage son, and quickly becomes exasperated at his, and the king’s, actions. We can’t neglect Bolingbroke: Nigel Lindsay is similar to Rory Kinnear’s in his sheer imposing stature, but plays him as cocksure, cynical, and swaggering, although whether this too is nothing more than a veneer is up to debate. It’s also interesting to note that Lindsay played Ariel to Tennant’s Katurian in the National’s production of The Pillowman a number of years ago. Whereas I can’t judge what their dynamic may have been like in that production, and whereas the Richard/Aumerle relationship is emphasised more greatly than Richard/Bolingbroke, the antagonistic dynamic that Richard and Bolingbroke engage in reflects that of the bullish detective and the accused writer in McDonagh’s play. Only here, the dynamic keeps shifting: 3.2 reduces Richard to tiny little pieces, but the deposition scene has him running rings around Bolingbroke: refusing to let go of the crown, standing and shouting on top of his throne, and becoming Bolingbroke’s very own personal space invader armed with a mirror. And while Lindsay may not have an awful lot to say in this scene, his derisive laugh and gesturing after Richard following his departure conveys so much: a need to save face, an attempt to regain some control over what has happened.

The set, designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis, is simple. Once you enter the theatre, the initial pre-show with Lapotaire and the coffin, set in a black austere court, immediately makes an impression. Characters use minimal props, ascend an ascending or descending parapet, and the use of holograms, along with Tim Mitchell’s lighting, effectively conveys a sense of place for each scene: the world of the production is vaguely medieval, but not necessarily committed to it (but such is Shakespeare’s commitment to historical accuracy, anyway). But Brimson Lewis’ set deceives you with its simplicity (evoking Doran’s Macbeth and its bare, dark stage full of surprises): the floor opens up to reveal Richard’s bareboned prison towards the end, trapping him under the stage. It emphasises his isolation, solitude, and confinement, similar to Sam West’s performance of the soliloquy in a standing wooden box at the Swan in 2001. It is economical yet effective, and the same could be said of Paul Englishby’s score, which is dominated by the singing talents of three sopranos and a number of trumpets sounding.

So yes, I quite liked this production, and I’m excited to see it again soon in the Barbican. Runs in Stratford until 13 November, and runs in London from 9 December to 25 January.

POSTSCRIPT: Much thanks to Poly Gianniba for the long, interesting, stimulating twitter conversation about the production, some elements of which surfaced here and still linger in my thoughts regarding the play in performance. You can find her excellent (and unspoilery!) review here. Also, all references to the play have been taken from the most recent Oxford World’s Classics edition, edited by Anthony B. Dawson and Paul Yachnin (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011). A fantastic critical edition which I’d thoroughly recommend.

REVIEW: Othello, National Theatre, July 2013

Othello production poster.  (c) Photo by Seamus Ryan.
(c) Photo by Seamus Ryan.

Last Monday, the 22nd of July, was a big step in the theatre-going life of Young Emer. Even though I have been living in the UK for almost twelve months now, it was the first time that I had stepped foot inside the National Theatre to see a show. I’m very glad that my first time happened to be Nicholas Hytner’s production of Othello at the Olivier. It’s an intense, claustrophobic production, anchored by some remarkable acting. It being my first time seeing the play on stage, it might just banish the memory of being forced to watch the Kenneth Branagh-Laurence Fishburne 1995 film version in school, which had a very wet Emilia, Branagh’s otherwise great performance being hampered by the fact that they shot his soliloquies like a David Attenborough documentary, and Desdemona dancing with a pole for no particular reason except it probably looked nice (to which my Leaving Cert English teacher responded, ‘As you do’).

Hytner places his actors onto a set that is initially quite urban (Iago and Roderigo’s first exchange takes place outside a very loud bar, for example), but as soon as it moves towards the climax of Act One with the Duke’s Council, Vicki Mortimer’s set begins to focus on the interior: as the production progresses, tiny, brightly-lit rooms are revealed, becoming the site for much of the action. This is particularly effective once the play moves to the Cypriot barracks: with large, looming concrete walls and lamp-poles in the background, it’s almost as if someone literally ripped off the roof of one of the cabins in order to peer into the characters’ private affairs. This highlights the domesticity of Othello, and the domesticity and intimacy of its tragedy: carnal affairs, and things we’d rather keep to ourselves, are a preoccupation of many of the characters. It also lends a sense of claustrophobia to the proceedings: there’s no opportunity for fresh air, everyone’s in each other’s faces, and there’s no chance of privacy. People may overhear your raucous drinking sessions. People may be eavesdropping on your private conversations. Nothing is your own private business here.

(l-r)_Rory Kinnear as Iago, Adrian Lester as Othello. Production photography by Johan Persson.
(l-r) Rory Kinnear as Iago, Adrian Lester as Othello.
(c) Photo by Johan Persson.

But perhaps the greatest success of this production is its Othello and Iago (Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear). Lester’s Othello is charismatic, imposing, and remarkably restrained when he needs to be: rather than a surprising exclamation, his ‘Goats and monkeys’ is delivered in a rather deadpan fashion to Lodovico (Nick Sampson) before marching off stage without another word. The final scene of the play sees him swing from displaying cold ruthlessness to expressing genuine, honest grief in a short space of time, yet he pulls this off rather convincingly: his murder of Desdemona (Olivia Vinall) is particularly horrible, but we grow to express a degree of sympathy for him in his final moments of despair. Rory Kinnear’s Iago is refreshingly non-Machiavellian: there’s a degree of earthiness to him which makes him more dangerous. When he spits out ‘I hate the Moor’, his bitterness and anger is palpable. One of the greatest ironies of the play is the constant refrain of ‘honest Iago’, and Kinnear’s performance actually makes sense of this: he almost plays mentor to Cassio after his disgrace in Act Two, and you get the idea that he’s played a similar role to the soldiers who have also passed through the ranks. He’s the friendly bloke at work who you meet on the first day, who shows you the ropes, and who takes you for your first pint at the end of the day; it’s not for nothing that Iago leads the session that results in Cassio losing his job. You realise why Othello trusts him so much: Lester’s performance benefits from Kinnear’s in that it becomes very hard to view Othello as a gullible fool, and Kinnear’s benefits from Lester’s in that Iago does not resemble a pantomime villain. Their friendship (well, it’s very one-sided from the looks of it) becomes actually tangible and more realistic to the audience member. Lester and Kinnear become a formidable partnership.

They’re ably supported by the likes of Lyndsay Marshal, who plays a wonderfully fiery, pragmatic Emilia, who’s not afraid to have a pint with the lads or to stand up to her husband (one disturbing moment of manhandling infers that he’s abusive towards her). Jonathan Bailey, a.k.a. that little shit in Broadchurch, effectively brings out the braggadocio in Cassio, but also conveys that the young lieutenant has a lot to learn. Olivia Vinall is terrific in parts (especially in her final scene), but she begins her scenes in a weirdly declamatory fashion. She’s good as she goes along, and she teases out aspects of the character beyond the two-dimensional ‘angel’ template, but it’s jarring when she begins with WHERE SHOULD I LOSE THAT HANDKERCHIEF EMILIA before easing into a delivery similar to that of her fellow actors. What’s particularly interesting about how her performance fits in the grand scheme of things is how out of place Desdemona is at the barracks. This is epitomised by the Venetians’ arrival in Act Two: Iago, Othello, Emilia, Cassio et al arrive wearing army helmets and fatigues, but Desdemona rushes in casual wear and a blue backpack. There’s genuine tenderness between Lester and Vinall, but it becomes clear from their performances that Desdemona didn’t realise what she signed up for when marrying into the army, or that she perhaps took Othello’s stories at face value.

(l-r) Desdemona (Olivia Vinall), Othello (Adrian Lester), Emilia (Lyndsay Marshal). (c) Photo by Johan Persson.
(l-r) Desdemona (Olivia Vinall), Othello (Adrian Lester), Emilia (Lyndsay Marshal).
(c) Photo by Johan Persson.

All in all, it’s a very thoughful, well-made production. The final moments leave us with Iago, who pauses before leaving Othello and Desdemona’s lodgings with Lodovico, Gratiano, and Cassio. He stares at the three dead bodies of Othello, Desdemona, and Emilia on the bed for a good few seconds. Initially I believe he’s staring at them with a degree of remorse… or perhaps he thinks he’s exceeded his expectations and has hit the jackpot. With a man who vows never to ‘speak word’, and who won’t fully disclose his intentions, it’s fitting that we close with more ambiguity on Iago’s part. Runs until 5 October.

[Long Overdue] REVIEW: Midsummer Night’s Dreaming (RSC/Google+), Stratford-upon-Avon, June 2013

A while ago, Midsummer Night’s Dreaming, a collaboration between the Royal Shakespeare Company and Google+, took place in Stratford over the weekend of 21-23 June. (Well, if you’ve been reading this blog for the past while, you already know this.) After distilling my thoughts about the project for some time now, I think it’s now time to offer some thoughts on the weekend’s events, as well as prior to that. As well as posting some pictures that I took of the performances  — the internet does like pictures, right?

(l-r) Alexandra Gilbreath as Titania and Joe Dixon as Bottom.

A lot of criticism aimed at the project suggested that those who got the most of the project were those who attended the events in Stratford, or as Dominic Cavendish in The Telegraph suggested, ‘you were confronted with a near-constant stream of tittle-tattle about the action, most of it posted by new ancillary characters, without witnessing the thing itself.’ Whereas I’d be the first to admit that the live performances really enhanced my experience of the event, and that my opinion is wholly subjective in that I had experienced the play both offline and online, I’m unsure if Cavendish and others had been interacting with the Google+ community before the weekend had started, or had they even posted at all. That community had been there for quite a long time before the 21st June, with people from around the world posting and sharing content. Not only that, but the RSC had organised live Google Hangouts for people to watch in the run-up to the weekend, featuring contributions from director Greg Doran, actors performing in the show, and those who had interacted with the play through their work creatively and academically — so there had also been interactive content directly linking to the shows that were coming up. I had only joined the community a week or two before the performances, but posting in it encouraged me to be creative about what I posted, and to be creative about how I would interact with the play online. I can’t speak for those who couldn’t be in Stratford, but I honestly think that it was a project that the more you put in, the more you got out of it. I understand that some people would be happy just to see the shows. Some people are happy enough to share posts and look at the pictures online. But whatsoever way you chose, it welcomed an active response rather than a passive one.

This is one of many things I posted to the #dream40 community. It’s the closest I’ll ever come to being funny with Shakespeare.

I missed the performance of Act 1 on Friday (due to taking Sam aka WordOtter to his first RSC performance — it was Hamlet, fact fans), but I did catch the rest of the performances that followed. The next performance took place in the Ashcroft Room at 2.30am on Sunday morning, which took care of Act 2 to 4.1. It was limited seating, in a room full of windows and probably mainly used for rehearsal space (anyone who has been in the Ashcroft Room more often than I have, please feel free to prove me wrong), with limited props. Doran asked us to think of it as a ‘rehearsal’  — they had only been rehearsing it for the past week, and they were all in basic costumes — but it was a very, very good rehearsal if that’s so: special commendations to Peter de Jersey’s Oberon/Theseus, Alexandra Gilbreath’s Titania/Hippolyta, Joe Dixon’s Bottom, and Lucy Briggs-Owen’s Helena (and you, Robin Goodfellow, in your Mark Hadfield disguise). The fact that it was a select audience, that there wasn’t that many of us, lent a sense of mystique to the proceedings. To put it plainly: it’s very early morning in the forest, and while people are sleeping soundly in their beds, there’s some mischief going on here — and we’re the only ones who know what’s going on. And as intended, things wrapped up around 4am in the morning. Light was beginning to pour out of the windows in the Ashcroft Room. Stumbling outside of the Swan Bar, day had come. It was a nice touch.

(l-r) Peter de Jersey as Theseus, Joe Dixon as Bottom, Lucy Briggs-Owen as Helena, Mark Quartley as Lysander, Alexandra Gilbreath as Hippolyta. Foreground: Simon Manyonda as Demetrius. Also Hippolyta looks suspiciously like Titania. WHAT A COINCIDENCE.

The next afternoon saw Stratford preparing for Midsummer’s three weddings, so in Bancroft Gardens a fete was held, with food; cake to be decorated and, uh, other decorations to be made; and free music.  It might just have been the first wedding to have a donkey as a wedding cake.

CAYUK. I decorated two of the cupcakes surrounding it. I then learned that I am terrible when it comes to icing guns.

It was a rather nice way to spend a Sunday afternoon: for one thing, the kids taking First Dance lessons along with their parents has to be one of the cutest things ever. It may have been wet, yes. I don’t know whether it’s my nostalgia for picnic blankets and music festivals, but sitting with a massive group of people nestling near the stage (with picnic blankets, obviously) waiting for 4.2 to begin is not a bad way to spend your Sunday.

Waiting for the wedding to begin. Notice the fairy lights.

The performance of 4.2 was brief, as it had to be. The most interesting part was watching the rehearsal of 5.1, or what we could see of it until it got rained off. Not that it dampened anyone’s spirits: dear Sammy had to flee, but he was just happy that he got to see Greg Doran for the first time. Everyone’s first sighting of Greg Doran is always a happy time: just ask any Institute student. I regret that I don’t have any pictures of Joe Dixon in a ridiculous wig playing with kids. Ah well.

But we DO have a picture of Paul Chahidi (Peter Quince) wearing ridiculous spandex.

A part of me was slightly glad that the rehearsal got rained off before we could see the entirety of the final act being rehearsed: seeing as I was going to see it later that night, I prefer it when I don’t see what’s coming, and I like to be surprised. So maybe it was simply serendipity. Later that night, it was thankfully dry once more, but the Dell was illuminated with several torches and rugs lying on the ground for people to sit on. [My companion and I ended up sitting beside Antony Sher: I apologise for the babbling Mr Sher, it was just really exciting to meet you for the first time.] The atmosphere was warm, affectionate, and intimate. I’m sure so many people in the audience had seen Midsummer several times. Maybe some of them, like myself, were seeing it for the second time (the first had been the SI Players’ wonderful production, and I am not being biased just because I was in the revival). Or maybe some had never seen it before. Who knows. But the audience shrieked with laughter when Dixon as Bottom as Pyramus kissed Wall’s ‘stones’ (I’ll leave that to your imagination), when Jim Hooper’s lovably benign Starveling turned up, literally resembling the man in the moon, and when Pyramus began to unfurl yards of red ribbon as he died (and kept dying, for as long as he possibly could do so). And just as Doran and the cast had hoped, the bells of Holy Trinity began to ring as Theseus was about to say ‘The iron tongue of midnight hath told twelve’, leading to a massive cheer from the audience. It may have been another ‘rehearsal’ to use Doran’s phrase, but another one worth watching.

(l-r) Theseus (Peter de Jersey), Hippolyta (Alexandra Gilbreath), Bottom as Pyramus (Joe Dixon), Starveling as Moonshine (Jim Hooper).

But the one thing that stays with me, more than anything over the weekend, was the performance of Oberon and Titania’s blessing. Every single cast member moved towards the front of the performance space, Theseus and Hippolyta leading the way as they began to sing the blessing to the audience. Illuminated by the torches, each actor hummed, harmonised, or just sang along. A few of the Mechanicals got out small bottles of liquid and began to blow bubbles which floated into the air. Perhaps it was the light, perhaps it was the music, perhaps because it was that midnight atmosphere, but I felt incredibly moved by this. I guess you could say that the actors created a sense of communitas amongst us all, to steal the term from Victor Turner. I can’t account for every single audience member there, but I don’t think I’ll see a production of Midsummer quite like that one.

Although, the final performance raised questions about the advantages and disadvantages of performance spaces for such an experiment. As we were encouraged to take photos and update to Google+ or elsewhere with the hashtag #dream40, I had been doing so rather regularly throughout the weekend, as had several people attending the performances (the multiple photos, videos, and different perspectives became rather interesting to see as the weekend progressed). I had no problems with taking photos during the performances on Sunday morning and afternoon, but things became rather complicated during the final performance. For some reason I could not pick up the wifi on my iPad, so I resorted to using my tiny little smartphone with a not-so-smart camera to take pictures (which is why the night-time pictures look so blurry). Even though we were allowed to take pictures and update, the darkness and atmosphere somewhat inhibited me. It was hard to see any similar lights along the front row of rugs, but my phone was one source of quite, quite blinding light, so much that I kept accidentally blinding my companion with it (and then began to wonder if I had been doing the same to others). Maybe it was just the smart-phone, maybe it was my own sheer clunkiness and lack of subtlety in operating it, maybe it was my need to update during the performance instead of after as others had chose to. It does, however, ask questions as to which performance spaces can lend itself to such an initiative as #dream40, and which equipment and interfaces would lend itself well to it too.

The entire cast of Midsummer Night’s Dreaming, towards the end of the performance.

Regardless, I sincerely hope the RSC and Google do a similar project in the future — The Tempest, The Comedy of Errors, and Much Ado About Nothing could work particularly well in real-time, although the former would rely on Prospero and Miranda being shipwrecked on an island that also happened to have wifi — and I hope that they continue to experiment with the format. Maybe live-streaming would be the next thing to add, for instance. I just hope they don’t just stop there. Midsummer Night’s Dreaming allowed me to commune with others in the performance space and also online, and goodness knows there’s several ways in which one can mine that for creative advantages.

REVIEW: Private Lives, Gielgud Theatre, July 2013.

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This weekend I caught a matinee of Noel Coward’s Private Lives at the Gielgud Theatre in London. First thing of note: it was the first piece of modern theatre I’ve seen outside Stratford for quite a while (does Joe Wright’s production of Pinero/Marber’s Trelawny of the Wells at the Donmar count? Mind you, compared to Shakespeare…). So after having spent most of the year watching plays in a thrust stage auditorium, I found myself in a traditional proscenium arch set-up. So that was slightly odd (one gets so used to having the actors so very close to you after a time), but it’s perhaps a reminder to myself that I need to see a lot more theatre outside of Stratford. Another thing of note: many seats in the Upper Circle and Dress Circle were vacant throughout the performance (although, from where I could see, the stalls were relatively packed, barring a few empty seats). That’s a shame, considering Jonathan Kent’s production was worth passing the afternoon for.

I don’t claim much of an expert opinion on Coward: my only exposure to him was reading Private Lives on the bus home from Galway in the second year of my degree, and I remember really, really enjoying it (and somehow managing not to get seriously carsick). As far as I know — and anyone who has a more far-ranging knowledge of Irish theatre history than I do is welcome to prove me wrong — you wouldn’t see many of Coward’s plays in the repertory back in Ireland either, so the most exposure you’d have to his work is through reading them. Again, a great shame.

As far as my understanding of the play in performance goes, the play can’t really work if you don’t believe in Elyot and Amanda, and if you don’t sense the chemistry and passion (in more ways than one) between them on the stage. In that sense, they’re a sort of anti-Romeo and Juliet: the performance just won’t work if they don’t convince you. Perhaps the greatest success of this production is the casting, then, as Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor are absolutely outstanding as the lead pair. Stephens especially has a gift for comic timing and pratfalling (well, myself and Miss Mickum knew that already, from watching Vexed): his gasp of mock horror when Victor calls him a drunkard, and his response to Sibyl’s ‘Where are you going?’ (‘Canada’ is the sharp reply) are hilarious. He’s caddish, alarmingly brute-like, very immature, and somehow very likeable. Chancellor’s Amanda is more than a match for him: she’s flighty, glamorous, stubborn, and ready to dance to The Rite of Spring just to annoy her ex-husband. Even though she’s just as prone to losing her temper as he is — the final moments of Act II are utter chaos, as Elyot is rained on with anything from roses to sheet music, and just barely missing being hit by cups and saucers — she also displays hints of vulnerability. Perhaps Elyot is the same, as well: the two spend most of Act II clinging to one another, terrified of repeating history before everything goes to pot just before the interval.

(l-r) Anna Chancellor as Amanda and Toby Stephens as Elyot. (c) Photograph by Alastair Muir.
(l-r) Anna Chancellor as Amanda and Toby Stephens as Elyot.
(c) Photograph by Alastair Muir.

They’re ably supported by Anna-Louise Plowman (Stephens’ wife in real life, fact fans) as Sibyl and Anthony Calf as Victor: one needy, insecure, and dressed in ludicrous taffeta (Elyot’s ‘Oh God’ sums it up precisely); the other bad-tempered, blustering, and fiercely proud. It’s particularly funny to watch these two tear seven shades out of one another towards the play’s end — made even more the funnier by Elyot and Amanda’s silent and amused (and eventually, quite bored) presence in the background. Sue Kelvin’s Louise is only unintelligible due to my poor French, but perhaps that was the point: you got the sense that she was perhaps having the last laugh on those who couldn’t understand her.

A final note about set design, and other things: I’ll never get tired of revolving sets. Good that we’re got that out of the way. Compared to the simple corresponding balconies of Act I (signposting how the two married couples seem to mirror each other throughout the scene), Amanda’s Paris apartment is a luxurious haven surrounded with plush beds and throws, vinyls, and numerous paraphernalia. Stephens and Chancellor lounge around such a place in their pyjamas during Act II, jokingly claiming that they’re ‘living in sin’. Whilst such sentiments are a reminder that we’re still in the early 1930s, thankfully Kent’s production is not. Elyot’s complaint about Amanda’s sleeping around, an activity he claims is the reserve of men, is deeply misogynistic, but here — and perhaps Stephens’ pratfalling plays a part in this — he becomes the butt of the joke rather than the joke reflecting more on Amanda. Perhaps it is another manifestation of how our cultural attitudes can shape our reception to plays  written before our generation (see W. B. Worthen and Shakespeare and the Authority of Performance for this), but Elyot’s sexism is held up as baseless posturing. I can’t account for the entire audience, nor should I account for the reception towards the play’s original performance, but for me on that Saturday afternoon, Elyot’s sexism wasn’t glorified. Amanda laughs at him for being very outdated, and so do we.

So, perhaps you should get yourself a ticket while they last. Runs until 21 September 2013.

Midsummer Night’s Dreaming: it’s already on the internet near you

If you’ve been hanging around Google+ for the past while, you might have noticed something a bit… out of the ordinary. William Shakespeare has just discovered social media, and is posting his thoughts for all to hear. And not only that, but one of his own characters, Robin Goodfellow, is getting in on the action. No-one knows what Puck is up to, but then again, does anyone?

This overly florid introduction is my hamfisted attempt to introduce you to Midsummer Night’s Dreaming, the new digital collaboration between the RSC and Google’s Creative Lab. Basically, it’s theatre created on the internet. People have been sharing items and communicating with each other and other characters, and basically retelling the play through a digital medium. This’ll culminate in live events in dear old Strats over 21-23 June, including a live performance of 4.2 on Sunday 23rd (weddings ahoy!) directed by Greg Doran.

I’ve been playing around with the Midsummer Night’s Dreaming Google+ community (search for it on Google+), and it’s quite a democratising enterprise. There have been posts about fairy cakes, Neil Gaiman (I accept blame for that one), and many lion macros. I’ve been keeping abreast with a fairy’s travels from town to town too! It’s another way of engaging with the play through the internet, and in such a personalised way. It is entirely up to you in how you want to take part, how you want to share in it. As someone who’s interested in how we engage with Shakespeare nowadays in every shape and form, it’s great to see how people make the play their own. I’ll continue to post, and I hope you’ll join in. And I hope I’ll see you in Stratford next weekend for one hell of a wedding.

Oh yeah, and follow #dream40 like the good kids you are. And ask Puck a question. He’s great fun.

And there’s one for everyone in the audience(s): Macbeth and the ordinary spectator

Programme cover for Macbeth, Swan Theatre, 1999.

It’s the end of May and I’m almost a month into researching my masters dissertation. I’m writing on Greg Doran’s 1999 production of Macbeth at the Swan Theatre, and looking at it through two very distinct prisms: one is concerned with how the participants (actors, directors, etc) write, think, and remember it, and the other deals with different groups of audiences — critics, academics who either review it for publication or try to position it into the performance history canon, and lay audience members. This project germinated out of the fact that so many from the first set have written and/or talked about it so much — Harriet Walter wrote a short book about it in the Actors on Shakespeare series; Antony Sher has written extensively about it in Players of Shakespeare and in his very good autobiography, Beside Myself; and Greg Doran has given several interviews in print and elsewhere. To that end, I’ve become interested in how an actor or director’s memory works differently from someone who may not be intimately involved with the production at all — Peter Brook writes in The Empty Space about how, for the general spectator, memories of performance almost become images, like ‘silhouettes’, which for me describes my own way of remembering shows that I’ve seen in the past. They become narrowed down to one solitary image that stands out from the rest. I’ve mentioned to people that the one image that remains from seeing Propeller’s Richard III is the sight of Richard Clothier’s Gloucester standing alone onstage after becoming king, a crown on the stool near him. He begins to laugh — it’s a horrible, high, cold laugh — and the lights cut to blackout. It’s now the interval. Other shows have worked the same: it’s Cillian Murphy sporting a pair of homemade wings and hanging over scaffolding with a microphone in his hand, disco lights reflecting off his body, at the end of Misterman; Pippa Nixon serenading the audience (and Alex Waldmann) with a Wye Oak song while balloons flood the stage in King John; and more recently, the party that forms the end of As You Like It, as the revellers bounce around the stage singing and dancing. They’re completely wet but they’re deliriously happy, and every single time I watch it, their euphoria rubs off on me too (I will review it soon, promise).

This leads me onto the type of literature that I’ve been looking at lately. A fantastic introduction to audience studies is probably Helen Freshwater’s Theatre & Audience, which argues for the normal audience member’s inclusion in performance research. Freshwater makes a very valid point that relying on critics in order to ascertain the reaction to a particular show has its limitations. This is particularly glaring where Shakespearean performance is concerned, as critics come to a show with certain preconceptions and previous productions in mind (as much as I really don’t like Jonathan Slinger’s Hamlet, one gets tired of critics referencing the ‘advice to the Players’ when talking about his performance: see here and here). This is something that I will need to be conscious of when talking about those who were paid to come and watch Macbeth, whether to sell it to the public, discourage people from seeing it, or (if they were reviewing it for an academic publication) to generally discuss its successes and failures in an attempt to place it in dialogue with previous or concurrent productions of the same play. Or even similar or wildly different ones at that.

So what I want to figure out is what do ordinary audience members remember from this production (urgh, I hate using the word ‘ordinary’). What are the lasting images? If not, what are the sounds, the moments, the words that stick out in the memory? Do they, too, place this Macbeth in dialogue with the likes of Trevor Nunn’s 1976 production or other productions that they have seen? Do they compare Sher and Walter to other Macbeths and Lady Macbeths that they have seen, or measure them up by some general cultural consensus that determines what they ‘should’ be? (Obviously owing to her firsthand experience, Walter is especially good on Lady Macbeth’s cultural legacy: see Actors on Shakespeare.) Whether these memories are big or small, verbose or concise, they are welcome, and fascinating in any way. So, naturally, please get in touch. And generally, suggestions/ideas/comments are always welcome.

[P.S. I’m giving a paper on ‘Reading Shakespeare: Macbeth at the RSC and the actor’s account’ at this year’s BritGrad conference. Do come along if you’re interested in hearing yours truly yammer on about Sher and Walter for twenty minutes flat. I promise it will be interesting. Somewhat.]