On loss and bravery. And Penelope Wilton.

On Saturday evening, I went to see the play “Taken at midnight” again; this was the final performance of a brief West End run,  cut short by Downton Abbey. It seems strange to be writing about a play after it has closed, but I feel like I almost must, just to grieve the loss of it. It has happened before – in October last year, I heard Sir Thomas Allen sing Schubert’s Winterreise in the Holywell Music Room. I had bought the ticket months in advance,  and from the moment it arrived I was ever conscious of the date, looking forward to it like to little else before or since. When it was over, I wanted to cry; both the loss of the waiting and of the momentary perfection of the performance was almost overwhelming. There is great beauty in the fleeting nature of a live performance; great beauty, and great sadness. Once gone, a great performance can never be experienced again. Grasping on that, I saw this play three times over seven weeks, booking my last ticket (to the last performance) only days earlier, because I suddenly couldn’t bear the thought that I’d never see it again.
IMG_6996And what a glorious memory it is. This play got shortlisted for three Olivier awards (I’m not overtly optimistic, but feel like I’ll punch something if Wilton doesn’t win), and the general reviews have been glowing with praise. All deserved, every word. The cast was excellent, the production working perfectly. And there was something magical about seeing Wilton on the stage, seeing her artistry,  the sheer, simple skill of stagecraft honed to perfection. She disappeared, with only the character left on the stage, and yet – after a briefest of meetings on the stage door – I felt she was more genuine, more her, while standing on the stage than she was wrapped in shawls, fretting about her hair, and signing programs on the street behind the theatre, late in the evening.
IMG_6995I’m not sure why this particular play has gripped me in such particular way. Some of its most profound ideas and lines are almost cliched in their simplicity, and yet – no thought needs to be deeply unique to be profoundly true; and therein lies the beauty of this play. It deals with the deceptively simple concepts of courage, of evil, of the sheer absurdity of the sort of abstract evil Hitler and his followers represent (how Hitler called the Jews vermin and bacilli is repeated few times, almost as if to a comic effect), and with love. The central character loves her son, so giving up the fight for him is never an option; Irmgard maintains great, unbreached dignity because she’s not afraid to humiliate herself, to make herself a nuisance, to beg. She’s not intimidated by Dr Conrad’s incredibly shiny boots, medals or party badge, and she doesn’t care that she’s putting herself at risk. My secret prayer has always been “Please God, when the time comes – and it will – give me courage to stand up and say, this is not right”, and to me, that is what this play is ultimately about.
wilton handsTaken at Midnight, written by Mark Hayhurst and directed by Jonathan Church, premiered at the Chichester Theatre Festival in September 2014, and transferred to Theatre Royal Haymarket in January 2015. The closing performance was on March 14.

April is the cruellest month

Easter holiday, that brief respite before Trinity, which is always a short term and ridiculously busy. Work has been stressful lately, and unlikely to get any less so, until the Commemoration day in early July. I was going to go to northern France during this holiday, but that didn’t quite fit in, so instead I’m spending a lot of time knitting, watching House on Netflix and just generally doing nothing much. Usually that’s fine, but now I cannot believe there’s another week and a half of this left.

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This time last year, we had snow, so spring seems to be very early. I missed the glory of Magdalen College Fellows’ Garden last year, and because of work and bad weather, was afraid I would miss it all again this year. Not so, thankfully. This is the best place in Oxford for spring flowers – snowdrops in February, daffodils in march, fritillaries in April.

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The huge horse chesnut tree has survived another year, and was the first thing to sprout leaves this spring. I love this tree, and so I suspect did Dorothy L. Sayers, who refers to it in her novel Gaudy Night: But Mr Pomfret was not to be checked. His admiration had run away with him, and Harriet, cornered in the shadow of the big horse-chesnut tree by the Lamb and Flag, found herself listening to as eager an avowal of devotion as any young gentleman in his twenties ever lavished upon a lady considerably his senior in age and experience.

Sayers also describes April in Oxford – time when undergraduates all used to go home and the town, before mass tourism, was quiet and slow:

April was running out, chilly and fickle, but with the promise of good things to come; and the city wore the withdrawn and secretive beauty that wraps her about in vacation. No clamour of young voices echoed along her ancient stones; the tumult of flying bicycles was stilled in the narrow strait of the Turl; in Radcliffe Square the Camera slept like a cat in the sunshine, disturbed only by the occasional visit of a slow-footed don; even in the High, the roar of car and charabanc seemed minished and brought low, for the holiday season was not yet; punts and canoes, new-fettled for the summer term, began to put forth upon the Cherwell like the varnished buds upon the horse-chestnut tree, but as yet there was no press of traffic upon the shining reaches; the mellow bells, soaring and singing in tower and steeple, told of time’s flight through an eternity of peace; and Great Tom, tolling his nightly hundred-and-one, called home only the rooks from off Christ Church Meadow.

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I go to Ashmolean on all holidays. This time I didn’t quite catch the mood. The Vermeer, which used to hang in this room, is gone. Tourists everywhere. In one gallery, a pair of teenage girls were sitting, completely absorbed by their mobiles, while surrounded works by the finest artists in the world – Monet, Manet, Pisarro, Cezanne. How could anything on a phone possibly be more interesting?

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Lately I have been feeling everyone is going places, doing interesting things, achieving something and I’m stuck with unwashed dishes.

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I finally got around to buying the 3rd series of Call the Midwife. This last series felt at times almost like a spin-off of the original, and since Jessica Raine has left (and as rumour has it, Miranda will be available for limited filming only), 4th series will probably be even more so. I still enjoyed it, but felt often like the quality of the stories isn’t quite as high as it used to be. The midwives have beceome the centre of the attention, when it used to be the mothers and the patients who created the fabric of the show. I missed that, those extraordinary destinies of the people of the East End. And I missed the sense of women together – nuns, nurses, working and living in a community. And Jane. What happened to Jane?!?

I made a book

I completed another notebook just the other day. These notebooks are diaries of sort for me, though more visual than written – poems I have liked, passaged from books, pictures I like, pictures that serve as inspiration to whatever I’m working on at the moment.

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Some Burne-Jones. I love the pre-Raphaelites, the whole luscious, exaggerated, symbolical world they created. This is one of my favourites, though Burne-Jones for me loses for Rossetti’s Day Dream and Proserpina, both wonderful paintings.

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I paint a lot and very poorly on my notebooks. I can take photos, and draw a little, but the results I get with watercolours are dubious at best.

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Line drawing of finches.

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My favourite Finnish poem, Nocturne by Eino Leino. Captures the spirit of a midsummer evening perfectly.

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Virginia in a lace frame.

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A bit of a story a worked on for few days about a year ago. My notebooks are like cemeteries of story ideas – I experiment with them, write outlines and scenes and try to get a taste if these is enough there to commit. In this instance, there wasn’t.

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Someone I love so, so much: Penelope Wilton in Hamlet. Though I have been an infrequently frequent opera-goes ever since I was five, I have never really grasped theatre until in the very recent years. Spoken word may never hold me in thrall the same way sung does, but the actors’ craft, their capability to express emotion fascinates me. As does the text of a play, the playwright’s ability to create people, create voices on the page.

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My present notebook is, boringly, a Moleskine, and a beaten-up, fat, torn one at that. Yes, that’s scotch tape on the corners, stopping the spine from fraying. The whole thickness is about twice is used to be, thanks to everything I have glued in. The elastic band has a knot on it to make it tighter, and the silk ribbon is long gone. Much abused and much loved.

Are opera and ballet elitist?

I found myself watching this online debate today; an event that originally quite handily collided with the Royal Opera announcing its new season, and its music director Sir Antonio Pappano making headlines by commenting on the cancelling ways of the present generation of star singers. The Times went as far as to devote page three of their print issue to Pappano’s comments. There was some applause. There were counterarguments. Sides were taken. People got upset. The last time opera got this much press was probably when the past manager of the ROH, Lord Hall, took up a job in the BBC.

A debate on the particular elitism of opera and ballet seems a bit cheap and obvious to me. It’s all about how one asks the question – “is opera elitist?” is searching for an answer that is different from “why don’t you like opera?” or “would you consider going to opera, if you have never been?”.  “Elitist” implies things. Money. Social position, real or imagined. Aspiration. In some cases, education. Taste for things that are not shared by the majority. If those things are not cheap, or readily accessible, they are elitist – with such definitions, one could argue country walks are elitist. Elitist in the context of opera apparently also implies fancy clothes, expensive tickets, stuck-up people (you know who you are) and something that is incomprehensible and difficult by definition and in a foreign language.

In the web debate Marc-Anthony Turnage, a contemporary opera composer, points out that this is a discussion that would never happen in the continent; that there is a horrifying anti-intellectualism in the UK. He is right, in a way. I sometimes find myself saying I miss the central Europe because of how cultured it is. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of arts in the UK – great, world class arts, fascinating, innovative projects, legendary orchestras, plenty of opera to go around. But somehow arts are not present in the public life; they don’t colour the streets. There are no men walking the streets of Worchester dressed up as Elgar – even if there are some women dressed up Jane Austen strolling Bath (but those are strictly for the tourists to see). Arts may have an audience – educated, curious, appreciative audience, but when they attract attention outside the review pages, it’s quite often in a negative context (see the first paragraph). It seems that all  forms of art need to defend their existence in the public discourse.

But arts receive public funding, I hear you saying – shouldn’t something that receives public subsidy be inclusive and open to all? There are two parts to this.

First, arts don’t get their funding from national budget – the money spent on opera and ballet and theatre and galleries and countless independent projects around the country comes from the National Lottery Distribution Fund; 12p of a £1 lottery ticket goes towards “charitable causes”. Contribution is entirely voluntary, you might say. Arts are relatively cheap, taking up only about 8% of the funds raised by the lottery fund. So if you bought a lottery ticket last Saturday, you contributed about 2p towards the funding of British arts. If you buy a ticket every Saturday, in a year you have contributed about one quid. I don’t know how much exactly opera and ballet get, but I assume their share of that quid is probably about 5p. Arts – not even those performed in the ROH – are not expensive to maintain.

Second – and this is important – arts are not exclusive. Yes, they do tend to sell tickets to events, and sometimes the tickets are even expensive – as are some pop concert tickets, and especially some sport event tickets – but more often than not, fantastic events are free or charge very little. Glyndebourne aside, no one dresses up. Yes, some people will make clever (or clever-sounding) comments during the interval. But there is no secret club, and as a rule no one will mind if you just say, “I don’t get it”. There is no imaginary elite that will pull out their copy of Kobbé’s Complete Opera Guide and pummel you on the head with it if you dare to go to the opera for the first time (although they might, if you snored loudly). No art form exists in a don’t-come-here vacuum; artists will say they do what they do to express themselves, but most of them are desperate for your attention.

“Are opera and ballet elitist?” is an amoeba of a question – how is “elitist” defined? what would make these two art forms particularly elitist? is art expensive/necessary/difficult? – those are all relevant questions and maybe they give some answers that will make the original question easier to answer. If elitist is defined as something prohibitively expensive and/or accessible to a decidedly select few, then no. Superyachts and the Orient Express are elitist. Millionaire’s Club is elitist. Augusta National golf club is elitist. Opera is not – it doesn’t in itself exclude anyone for any reason. Technically, you don’t even have to buy tickets to see it:

(Isn’t youtube great?)