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.

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Lately

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The Natural History Museum’s glass ceiling. This is one of my favourite places in Oxford to for inspiration, even if it is really crowded all the time. I go and see the dodo and the butterfly displays, and visit the ground floor of the Pitt Rivers Museum. It is pretty much the coolest place there is – dark, Gothic, full of terrifying things, from shrunken heads to trophy skulls to Japanese Noh theatre masks. I like to imagine that more than one of these artifacts is imbued with Warehouse 13 -style powers, just waiting for someone to break the glass and activate them, unleashing some exciting horrors.
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I managed to find a view of Oxford I have never photographed before. Few ancient trees have been ordered to be knocked down lately around Oxford, and I fear for this horse chestnut by the Lamb and Flag. Dorothy Sayers mentions it in Gaudy Night, and writing in the mid-1930s she already calls it “giant”.
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It finally snowed in Oxfordshire. It was brief, but glorious, a light coat of snow fallen at night, gone by afternoon. This winter has been gentle, almost boring, in its ordinariness, after the past two winters that brought blizzards and floods and freezing winds.
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My pretty, pretty socks. I learnt how to make socks about three years ago when all my old woolen socks were falling apart (my father, back when he was still working in the church, got loads of socks as gifts from the old ladies in the parish, and often passed them on to me). I gave the first pair I made to my goddaughter, and every consecutive pair to someone else. But these, finally are mine. Warm feet at last!
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Spring visited us on Sunday week ago – the day was warm and sunny and glorious, the snowdrops all out, the crocuses starting to make their way, fresh cowparsley pushing little shoots through the mass of dead leaves, and the first brave bees buzzing the blossoms. At the end of the half term, the sky will still be light when I leave work, and oh the difference to me!
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I went back to London yesterday, to see Taken at Midnight again. I wanted to see not just the play again, but Penelope Wilton too – I waited at the stage door, and she proved to be interesting rather than lovely, though she was very nice and polite. The play packs a punch emotionally, and must exhausting to do – day in, day out – 9 times a week, for months, both physically and mentally.
Also in the picture; fabrics from Liberty. My standard outfit is a grey merino/cashmere jumper, and lately I have become bored with them – not the least because I’ve binged on Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, and love the richness of the period clothes. So, I’ll be adding some tops with frills to my standards. And shawls. And red shoes. Red shoes should make everything better.

Lately

2015/01/img_6680.jpgFirst snowdrops of the new year. I went looking for them, and came back with a cold. Such is January.
2015/01/img_6681.jpgAnd the first wild primroses too, oh my!
2015/01/img_6694.jpg2015/01/img_6695.jpgDrinks party in a yarn shop just might be my favourite kind drinks party. With all the stresses of the end of the year, I often found myself skipping non-compulsory social occasions, and so I’m now making a conscious effort to ignore rain and darkness and all that, and go where the people are.
2015/01/img_6700.jpg2015/01/img_6701.jpgI bought the ticket Mark Hayhurst’s new play Taken at midnight already in the autumn, keen to see Penelope Wilton (I love Penelope Wilton more than my luggage, so to speak) on stage. I was very impressed by her performance, but even more so of this play; it is funny and easy to watch, but also harrowing, shocking and topical, telling the story of a woman trying to get her son freed from concentration camp, where he’s kept in “protective custody” along with other enemies of the totalitarian state – satirists, journalists, anarchists, “socialists and communists, on the same side for the first time” – as Hitler strengthens his powers and Germany settles in to a new regime. While the play focuses on the mother and her struggle – universal and simple – it touches the themes of civil liberties, and how those are the first things to go when a totalitarian government moves in. It seems sometimes that it’s ridiculous that freedom of expression and equal rights would even need discussing in 21st century, but here we are – sometimes it almost feels as if the years from the end of the WWI had never happened.
2015/01/img_6712.jpgLittle bit of spring in my place. Actually, quite a lot of it.

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.