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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?!?