"Nonstop imagery is our surround, but when it comes to remembering, the photograph has the deeper bite....
In an era of information overload, the photograph..is like a quotation, or a maxim or proverb."
(Susan Sontag: Regarding the Pain of Others 2003)

12 December, 2008

To Blog or not to Blog? Of Damaged Doctors & Procrastinating Princes or: Is Celebrity Casting bringing the Wrong Sort of Audience to the Theatre?


This image: copyright - Tristram Kenton

I have finally decided to grasp the cyber quill and scratch out a few lines about the latest dramas surrounding the RSC Hamlet at the Novello in London, mainly because several friends have asked me to and I also know many who have tickets which they have now heard will not guarantee them a performance by David “Time Lord” Tennant. I don't want to rehash the critical dingdong – if you’re interested, check out Mark Espiner’s expert knit-together from Thursday’s Grauniad.

The story so far: as an occasional reviewer, I sometimes get early dibs on hot tickets and, when the chance for six seats to see dishy Dave do the Dane popped up in the summer, I knew more than five young ladies who would gnaw my arm off for a ticket. (When not translating, copy-editing or blogging, I spend many a happy hour on the Thames towpath, trying to teach Oxford students from my old college a little about rowing - and, I hope, about life in general).

Thanks to the instant, and often ├╝ber-candid, magic of Facebook, I am, sometimes blushingly, privy to all their crushes & crises & I knew there would be a scramble for the seats. I took the tickets, confirmed the first five girls to respond & booked us in for Monday, 8th December, after their hectic, inebriated term end, a few days into the London run, on the night preceding press night. By October, these very tickets were going for up to 4x face value on E-Bay.

Even I was looking forward to our night Up West: a civilised pre-theatre supper next door at One Aldwych, followed by a couple of hours at Elsinore. But when they arrived in the mezzanine restaurant, their little faces were long & lachrymose. They had already been to the theatre (taking photos to upload onto Facebook, natch) only to see the billboard announcing that, at tonight’s performance the role of Hamlet would be played by Edward Bennet. They were inconsolable. One even rang her Mum to see whether she could be picked up from an early train home.

In the end, all of us trooped into the Novello (much excitement at seeing Nigella ‘Domestic Goddess’ Lawson two rows in front) and sat down for the Tennant-less tragedy. Fast forward to the inevitable standing ovation. Young Ed did good. He was word perfect and even I jumped to my feet. I have since been troubled by Charles Spencer’s suggestion in the Torygraph that Bennet looks like a cross between Bertie Wooster and Prince Andrew but, on the night, the 29-year old stepped into some rather large hose & wore them with aplomb.

The rest of the cast was superb, most notably Patrick Stewart as a troublingly sexy Claudius and as Old Hamlet’s Ghost - almost as madly possessed as was his amazing CFT Macbeth last year. Penny Downie makes a very elegant Gertrude.

I would counsel anyone with tickets to see Bennet, rather than Tennant, NOT to return them. It is as good a Hamlet as I have ever seen: better than 2004’s Old Vic/Trevor Nunn/Ben Wishaw and up there with Peter Hall’s 1994/95 version with Stephen Dillane, Gina Bellman & Michael Pennington. (Dillane’s planned reprisal of the role, with Sam Mendes at the Old Vic, has reportedly been postponed.) Obviously, we look forward to Jude Law’s “visceral” interpretation at the Donmar/Garrick with Michael Grandage next year (tickets already up to £99 each on a well known internet auction site…)

But soft, gentle reader, what comes now? Why! ‘Tis the traditional Shakespearian theatre goer’s rant… My young friends were unanimous in their admiration of Bennet but were unable to convincingly mask their disappointment at Dr Who’s detention in the Tardis sick bay. Would they have accompanied me to Hamlet had dishy Dave not been centre stage? Alas, I think perhaps not.

In fact, the entire theatre was full of people who were patently only there to see Dr Who in the flesh. That was certainly the case with two young women directly behind us who puzzled out loud about the “weirdness” of the language & the complexities of the plot throughout the first half. They did however prick up their ears at: “To be, or not to be..” loudly furnishing us with the next sentence before young Ed up on the stage could even pause for breath and/or dramatic effect.

To cast a Sleb or not to cast a Sleb? Perhaps that is the real question? I’d like to think that my five girlfriends – super-clever, articulate, curious Oxford students all - would have accompanied me to Hamlet even if DT hadn’t been top of the bill? Yet deep down I know, that no matter how politely they applauded the understudy & warmly kissed me goodbye (I did, after all, pay for dinner..) they were there more for the Doctor than for the Bard.

Personally, I don’t feel any particular need for a “Sleb-on-Stage”. I’ve been enthralled by almost anything theatrical since my dear old Da took me to the Lee Theatre in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, aeons ago, to see the Temptations in concert. I will never forget how my six-year-old heart fluttered, as the curtain rose slowly to the insistent three beat of the bass guitar and five immaculate black guys in white suits started singing: I got sunshine…on a cloudy day -

My last amazing theatre experience was Michael Morpurgo’s Warhorse at the National where the true celebrities were life size horse marionettes and the expert, yet hidden, puppeteers manipulating them. Beg, borrow or steal a ticket!

01 December, 2008

World Aids Day - What's the Point?


If this morning’s radio news is anything to go by, the BBC is more or less ignoring World Aids Day today. Perhaps it really is not that easy a news call? The 20th anniversary of a United Nations initiative to maintain awareness of a killer global virus vs. the Damian Green row, Mumbai aftermath, British tourists in Bangkok et al.

I was, however, quietly pleased to see various TV types, including the X-Factor finalists and judges, all sporting red lapel ribbons over the weekend. It is easy to knock these annual commemorations, perhaps particularly when they are sponsored by the UN. Yet this is not National Sausage Week or Take your Dog to Work Day.

It concerns a disease which affects 33 million people worldwide – the vast majority of whom do not have access to the anti-retroviral drugs which can both prolong & enhance their lives.

Twenty years on from the first World Aids Day, I was hoping that some entrenched attitudes and prejudices might have evolved. Alas, no. All these years of raising social awareness and of technological developments in the treatment of HIV/AIDS have singularly failed to change most generally held social perceptions of the disease.

When I mentioned to a friend that Starsky actor Paul Michael Glaser was presenting a BBC Radio 2 documentary about Aids in America, the response was: “I didn’t realise Starsky was gay!” He’s not – Glaser’s first wife, Elizabeth contracted HIV in 1981 through a blood transfusion while giving birth to the couple’s first child, Ariel. Ariel died in 1988; her mother in 1994, after founding the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric Aids Foundation. Glaser himself has since worked tirelessly for the cause.

When my brother, Rory, was first diagnosed in the early 1980s, it wasn’t even called HIV. At the time, the virus was considered fatal, and so it turned out to be for so many young gay men in the U.S.A. and Europe. Now, the WHO classification is merely chronic, which is the same category as a condition such as diabetes. Then, the fear & loathing was compounded with ignorance & homophobic prejudice. I found that out for myself, as once good (and now former) friends started to shun social occasions, including my own wedding, if they suspected that my brother would be present.

Now, with life-long treatment and the regular use of medicine, HIV positive patients can enjoy a long and normal life. Nevertheless, limited access to the appropriate medication and continued high rates of transmission mean that the virus remains just as deadly for the millions already infected in much of sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

Sadly, Rory didn’t manage to hang on quite long enough. He died in London’s Middlesex Hospital on May 16th 1994, aged 29-1/2, mere months before early UK drug trials started to show a faint glimmer of hope. I think about my brother constantly, perhaps more often than usual of late, as our elderly father slips into dementia and closer to his own end. So I don’t really need to sport a red ribbon in Rory’s memory today; I will however be wearing one proudly: for my brother, for all his mates who are gone and for everyone living with HIV, in the hope of continued advances, both in diagnosis, treatment and prevention – but perhaps more importantly – in prejudice.