Tuesday, 21 November 2017

TV Review – Howards End Episode 2 BBC1

After my mixed feelings about the first episode of Howards End, I watched the second episode in the hope it would be less of a curate’s egg and it was. There was only one scene with grown women acting like ‘girls being silly’ – the moment when Leonard Bast arrived at the door and they almost accosted him on the doorstep, both talking over each other in their enthusiasm to get him indoors. There were also fewer scenes with women rushing after people – only one this week as Helen chased after Leonard making a hasty escape from their patronising treatment of him in their drawing room once he gave in and accepted their invitation to tea.

The series is made worthwhile for me by the story of Leonard Bast, by far the most interesting character. Joseph Quinn is a superb actor in the role and completely believable against the sometimes melodramatic lines and acting by the Schlegel sisters. They can also be credible but they slip into odd moments when they become ‘silly girls’, which is disappointing in a story that’s looking at feminism.

In this episode we found out more about Bast and the reasons why his face shows all the woes of the world, mixed with some kind of hope – we wonder what it is he most wants. His life as a clerk is mind-numbingly dreary and he drags his feet home after work to a small flat in a basement, reached by walking along a grimy alley with views onto other basement flats with dirty net curtains. Unlike the Schlegels he has no servants and gets the cooking on, while Mrs Bast arrives home to ask him when she can stop pretending she’s his wife. It’s a scene we can tell has been repeated many times, and he promises he will marry here once he’s 21 as his word is his honour. So much is conveyed by this – his young age and the sense that he’s trapped in a life he hates.

When he visits the Schegel household his greatest desire is to talk about books but the sisters see him as a social project and they want to help him in other ways. His attempts at conversation about literature are rebuffed, and he himself feels rebuffed when Mr Wilcox turns up for a visit with his daughter. Bast feels himself out of his class and unwanted as a conversationalist about the arts. The scene when he leaves is moving, giving him the chance to tell Helen exactly how he feels while the maid tries to find his hat. He knows very well that they see him as a ‘charity case’ and a ‘comedy figure’ and that they have no interest in talking to him about books. As Helen tries to deny this the maid finds his hat and he takes it, swiftly moving his hand to grip it by a particularly threadbare part of the brim. Helen notices and he notices her noticing. It’s understated and all the more poignant for that.

Helen’s casual rudeness to her maid also shows her lack of self-awareness, wanting to help one person from a lower class while mistreating another. Quinn shows by his look towards the maid that he has seen Helen’s class superiority, and she is left on her own to consider these things in the light of his comments. Meanwhile, Mr Wilcox and his daughter are advising Margaret not to mix with people like Bast as ‘they will only take advantage’. If Wilcox sounds like the bad guy in this, the truth is that the Schlegels don’t come off well either. They insist Bast isn’t a ‘social experiment’ and that they invite him because they like him, but Wilcox is quite right that they make assumptions about Bast’s life being ‘grey’ and what he needs from them. They never ask him about his life or notice what it is he really wants from them.

I hoped the Schlegel brother Tibby might befriend Bast and give him the conversation he desires, but when he comes out at the sound of Bast saying they don’t like any of the authors he does and ‘what about Dostoevsky’, Tibby says that nobody likes Dostoevsky. He doesn’t recognise Bast at first then realises who he is and calls him his sisters’ social experiment and quotes what they say about him behind his back when talking to their social peers. Bast’s humiliation as a charity case and a curiosity is complete.

Tibby had some sympathy from me last week as his constant illness and fragility could be a serious condition and not the hypochondria some reviewers suspect. But this week he came across as a spoilt brat, not sure if he’s going to go back to Oxford. When the sisters insist that he must go back to university to get a job, he replies that he should be able to live off his inheritance as they do and why should it be different for him. Margaret replies that he’s a man so he must have a work ethic as it’s in the natural order. Another poor moment for their feminist credentials.

The scene also shows that they may be in poorer circumstances than the Wilcoxes, but the Schlegels come from a wealthy background – ‘old money’ you could say, although they are also looked down on for their German origins by the Wilcox son and daughter, who represent British society. Margaret showed that she doesn’t quite fit in by taking a bunch of red chrysanthemums to the funeral of Mrs Wilcox, completely the wrong colour among the white flowers from everybody else.

Despite this, the Schlegels are in straitened circumstances but on a par with the late Mrs Wilcox, who was the epitome of high class, inherited money, and no need to prove herself by her actions (I’m describing the stereotype rather than my view of class and wonder how she comes across in the novel). Mr Wilcox, on the other hand, seems to have married into money, as Howards End was owned by his late wife. He’s an industrialist who has made money – ‘new money’ – unlike the Schlegels who live on private incomes they have had passed down to them. The study of the class system is well observed and a theme that’s unfolding well. Bast brings into this the question of the arts being the preserve of the wealthy from which the lower middle class and the working class are excluded.

It was a surprise to find Mrs Wilcox had died between the two first episodes and a whole friendship between her and Margaret has been missed out. It’s an important friendship as it led to Mrs Wilcox deciding to leave Howards End to Margaret, knowing the lease on her family house is running out. The Schlegels have no idea about this so the Wilcoxes burn the scrap of paper with the improvised will. The Wilcox son and daughter are annoyingly self-centred, greedy and snobbish, and disliking them is pleasure.

Mr Wilcox is more of a mixture, convincingly articulate about the importance of industry and engineering, which the Schlegel sisters feel ‘lacks poetry’. He asks ‘why not?’ and he has a point. His criticism of their hypocrisy over treating Bast as a charity case also hits home as an unwelcome truth. He can also be kind, pretending to enjoy his ‘reformed food’ at the protein café Margaret takes him to – a place I would love to be able to visit!

Margaret quite clearly feels drawn to him and her responses to Helen’s taunts about marrying him show that she’d consider it. After the close friendship with his late wife, who we’ve just seen buried, this does seem rather opportunistic. Talk about jumping into somebody’s grave…

There’s more than enough to keep me watching – in fact I’d watch just to find out more about Bast’s back story and how he has ended up in a relationship and job that are destroying him. Will he find the company he needs so he can share his love of the arts, or will he continue to sit on his own at music concerts and read books by his fireside, keeping his thoughts to himself? Better still, will the Schlegel sisters give him some authentic conversation as an equal, rather than continuing their constant dissection of people, as Helen describes it – just another way to say ‘gossiping’?


If, unlike me, you’ve read the novel you’ll know this answers to my questions and far more, but the TV series will follow its own track. The selection of scenes to condense it into screenplay makes that inevitable. I believe the Schlegel sisters will become more self-aware and will start mixing empathy with philanthropy. HG Wells often wrote about the Schlegel sisters kind of philanthropist – the type who helped the poor by doing what they felt was best for them without giving them the choice. How he hated them. I haven’t read the novel and don’t know if it stirs up such strong reactions in readers, but the television series certainly does.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

TV Review – Howards End BBC1


Although I don’t watch much TV, period dramas are among my guilty pleasures as I relax at the weekend and the BBC usually has this kind of series on a Sunday. I’ve been looking forward to the latest one – Howards End. I haven’t read the novel by EM Forster so it was all new to me and as it’s set just before the First World War it has the added benefit of helping me visualise London just after the ending of my own novel-in-progress.

My initial reaction to the first episode was irritation, both with the characters and with the story. After reading the Guardian review I realised there’s more to Howards End than I had picked up from the television version and that perhaps the writer had depended on viewers being familiar with such a well-loved novel. Or perhaps irritation is how we were supposed to feel when faced with some of the scenes.

The irritation started when Helen Schlegel visited the wealthy Wilcox family in the lovely setting of their country residence Howards End. She ‘fell in love with all of them’, enthralled by a lifestyle that mainly involved practising croquet, callisthenics and sitting around at table or going for walks. I don’t normally want to shout ‘idle rich’ at the TV, but I was getting surprisingly heated. Perhaps this was deliberate on the part of the screenwriter, and if so it worked. It felt as if we were meant to share Helen’s infatuation, which led to falling in and out of love in a day with the most handsome son.

Meanwhile, back in London, Margaret was receiving letters from Helen and getting concerned about her sister, sharing the information with Aunt Juley. By the time Aunt Juley dashes off to Howards End, the romance is over and her questions about an ‘engagement’ lead to embarrassment. The Wilcox son is going off to Africa and shouldn’t have been ‘leading a girl on’ as he puts it to Helen. The atmosphere at table has become distinctly cold towards her. The aunt putting her foot in it really made me cringe, which was a high point as it was well written and acted.

After this I was becoming irritated again because the characters seemed to have so little to occupy their days that a brief flirtation became a cause of serious mortification. When the Wilcoxes took a flat in Wickham Place near the Schlegel household, Margaret and Aunt Juley immediately worried about how awful it was for Helen if she had to meet their son, and a letter was instantly written in response to a friendly invitation from Mrs Wilcox, telling her they should not have any contact. There was a part of me that wanted to shout ‘get a job or at least get something to occupy your time’ because it was so foolish.

There followed a bizarre scene where Mrs Wilcox wrote back that her son was away, and a repentant Margaret ran across the road to apologise to her in her bed. This was soon followed by more running about, with Margaret refusing an impromptu invitation to Howards End, then chasing after Mrs Wilcox to catch her at the station as she had changed her mind and wanted to go. The Wilcox family suddenly turn up and Mrs Wilcox changes her mind about the invitation and postpones it. I don’t know how this reads in the novel, but it was a a bit farcical while looking serious. The use of regular letters throughout the day to communicate with a neighbour across the road was an amusing reminded that this really did happen and the London post was the email of its day.

There was a lot of running about after people, particularly by young women dashing after others. Does this really happen and was I the only person to find it silly that women were depicted in this way? Perhaps men will start dashing out after people in Episode 2.

I was pleased to see Joseph Quinn as Leonard Bast as he’s an actor I particularly enjoy – his face expresses so much. He was especially good last Christmas in Dickensian as Miss Havisham’s jealous and greedy brother, partly innocent and partly debauched and exploited by others. He played the role of Bast well, but the writing made his scenes confusing. After reading the Guardian review I realised he was of a lower class than the Schlegels and wants to be involved in the arts, which they represent. So he provides a comparison and contrast with Helen and Margaret, looking up as they do towards the wealthier Wilcox family.

However, I understood little of this from the episode. In it we see Bast at a classical music performance, seated beside the Schlegels and looking at them with admiration. Trying to guess why, I assumed he was attracted to one or both of the sisters, so when he said Helen had gone off with his umbrella I thought it was a ploy to get to know them. It worked, I thought, as he refused to give them his address to return the umbrella, then they offered him their card and followed up by inviting him to come straight back. At their house he suddenly changes his mind about wanting to stay for tea and rushes off with the shabby umbrella he’s offered and admits is his.

Again, Helen dashes out after him but he refuses to come back and pretends not to hear her, although we see his expression that shows all sorts of unhappy frustration. I was baffled, and then even more baffled to wonder why he went home, sat with a book as if pretending he hadn’t been out, and a woman entered, sat on his knee and kissed him. So the episode with the Schlegels either seemed like he was looking for an affair, or there was something I didn’t understand. The Guardian review made his behaviour clear to me, but a few lines of dialogue would have helped as the screenplay should work independently of the novel.

All of this action gave great opportunities to show the clothes and the transport and housing of the day. This is not just helpful to me for my own research for writing my novel, but I especially enjoy it. Seeing pre-First World War London brought to life is a joy, even if it had a staged and artificial look. In fact a friend I asked for feedback found the whole production very ‘stagey’ and it could be set in a theatre, which is not a bad thing. There are strong scenes, wonderful costumes (especially Helen’s) and the various vehicles, including cars, steam trains, and horse drawn carriages are a joy to behold.

The difference between the Wilcoxes travelling by car and the Schlegels going by horse or on foot drew attention to the subtle differences in class, but the poorer classes were missing. The streets were pristine and the vehicles were like a display from a museum as they flowed neatly and very cleanly past. In real life, horses left droppings on the roads and people were employed to clean it so that the long skirts of ladies walking by or stepping down from carriages didn’t drag through it. A black maid brought in the start of social commentary, but more could have been done to people the streets with characters who are not lower-middle, middle-middle or upper-middle class.


Although the hectic nature of some of the scenes distracted me from the nuances, I realised later that there are themes underlying the foolishness – including feminism, studies in social class, the value of art and culture, and something about race and the colonies that hasn’t become clear yet. I’ll keep watching, hoping the irritation it caused in me was part of the screenwriter’s intention and believing there are intriguing plot and theme developments to come. 

Monday, 13 November 2017

BOOK REVIEW – MISS EMILY BY NUALA O’CONNOR (NUALA NÍ CHONCHÚIR)

I have a particular interest in literary fictional biography as I’m writing a novel inspired by the late Victorian poet Mary Elizabeth Coleridge, so I’ve been looking forward to reading Nuala O’Connor’s Miss Emily, based on the life of Emily Dickinson, or at least a short period in that life. Let me say straight away that it’s a thoroughly enjoyable read and demonstrates great skill in a challenging genre.

The novel revolves around the invented story of Emily Dickinson and a dramatic episode in the life of the family’s new young Irish maid, Ada Concannon.  It’s structured in alternating chapters told in the first person by each of these characters. I find that this structure works well for me and draws me forward as I keep wanting to find out what’s happening from each point of view. As a comparison, Affinity by Sarah Waters uses the same technique and it kept me up all night reading, while Miss Emily also kept me turning the pages.

The risk with this technique is that readers may prefer one story to the other and rush through the alternating chapters to get to the character they prefer, but this isn’t the case with Emily and Ada. The two work well as a contrast – the extroverted and feisty Ada, far from home for the first time, and the introverted Emily who has become more and more housebound.

Ada’s story provides the forward movement of the plot, which starts in Ireland and follows her on the sea journey to America in search of work with the help of her family the Mahers who are already there. The Dickinsons did have a maid called Maggie Maher, so the reader is intrigued to find out how much of the novel is true and which parts are invention. There is no author’s note to tell us, unlike other novels in this genre, such as Author, Author by David Lodge, based on the life of Henry James.

Sense of place is key to the novel, with Ireland evoked as a physical presence at the start and end of the novel – the reader can smell and feel the cold and mucky Liffey that Ada swims in before work as a maid in Dublin at the start, and we can also smell and taste Ireland on our lips in the sea spray as Ada returns to her home at the end. Home is also important to Emily, with Amherst and her house and garden brought vividly to life in her constant awareness of minute details.

The two stories are complementary as well as contrasting, as Ada’s vulnerability to the predatory Patrick Crohan demonstrates women’s need for protection, so her independence and adventurous spirit come at a cost, while Emily’s self-protection with her home and family as a shield makes perfect sense. When Emily tells Ada near the end to live her life to the full, adding that she wishes she had, I wondered if that was consistent and if it was a quote from her life.

Relationships provide human interest, with a beautifully told love developing between Ada and Daniel Byrne who works with Crohan at the Dickinson household. O’Connor is particularly skilled at depicting all the stages of love and passion, and she is equally skilled at depicting what happens when this passion is used to harm others. This is no Mills and Boone romance: love in the nineteenth century comes with a risk of serious venereal disease such as gonorrhoea, and the reader is never sure if a young woman on her own could be attacked sexually and whether it’s a good idea to ‘step out’ with a man.

Some of the themes are especially topical, including the pressure on servants not to report harassment and sexual abuse. Emily’s brother Austin is the main person exerting this pressure, again making me wonder which of these episodes were based on biographical information, and how far an author can go in inventing significant speech and actions by historical figures.

There’s a biography of Emily Dickinson by Lyndall Gordon called Lives Like Loaded Guns which answered some of my queries. The historical Dickinson family maid Maggie Maher was feisty and she did work with the Dickinson sisters on household duties and baking. In the novel, Emily develops a friendship with Ada through their mutual love of baking, and although readers may wonder if servants formed this kind of bond with employers, this is historically accurate. In fact, the biography confirms that Maggie Maher not only baked with Emily, but the Dickinson sisters also took a share of the housework.

The story of Maggie Maher is a fascinating one, but it isn’t the story of the fictional Ada, apart from her nationality, feistiness, and friendship with Emily and her sister Lavinia. Unlike Ada, whose stay with the Dickinsons is fairly short, Maggie Maher spent many years with them and was one of the main witnesses in a trial against Mabel Todd, who felt she had been promised land in return for transcribing and editing Emily’s poems. The maid’s account included details of adultery between Mabel and Emily’s brother Austin, an intriguing story, but not the one told in O’Connor’s novel.

Instead Miss Emily tells a fictional tale about Ada, her trip to America, her developing love for Daniel, and experiences with the violent Crohan which lead to a crime that I won’t give any more spoilers for. It’s at this point that Emily gets involved in defending her maid and Austin shows himself to be prejudiced against the Irish and no defender of women. The Dickinson siblings will become embroiled in actions to resolve a situation that could ruin all their reputations, each supporting Ada for different motives.

The mixture of fact and fiction is inevitable in biographical fiction, but the decision to include significant fictional actions to the lives of historical characters is one that raises ethical questions. Should we or should we not do that as writers? I don’t know the answer to that. In Miss Emily I find that Emily Dickinson becomes a bit less believable when she leaves the house to take action to protect Ada in this episode.

I can forgive the lapse into a less credible Emily (and realise other readers may find the episode more believable than I do) because most of the book depicts a thoroughly convincing character. It’s a joy to experience life and writing from inside her head and this is no easy task when emulating the words of such a talented and unique writer. Emily is brought to life again for us, not only through the inclusion of some of her poems, but also in the way she thinks and how she transforms intense perceptions into pared down lines and stanzas.

Relationships are at the heart of the book, with the loyalty between Emily and Ada set against the sisterhood and love Emily still feels for her lifelong friend Susan, who has ‘turned to stone’ since marrying Austin. Although Susan lives next door, the closeness Emily craves has been withdrawn and her thoughts return continually to the pain this causes. Emily’s sexuality is suggested, although same sex relationships are given less evocative and passionate treatment than the heterosexual ones.

The encounters between Ada and Daniel are as good as any relationship scenes I have ever read. By contrast, the feelings Emily has are more ambiguous, which could come across as evasive in an author using first person narrative. As Susan has distanced herself from Emily on marriage, the less emotional scenes in Emily’s meetings with her are justifiable, but I wonder if something is missing or if it’s better to leave her sexuality questionable. It’s noticeable that Emily’s response to women in general isn’t as clear as Ada’s response to men, although the Dickinson family is on the lookout for any comments she makes that reveal same sex attraction. For example, when she expresses a wish to have a ribbon as blue as Ada’s eyes nothing is said, but they look at her with suspicion.

Miss Emily is an accomplished novel in the literary biographical fiction genre and has taken its place among my all time favourite books, while Nuala O’Connor has joined my list of favourite writers.











Sunday, 5 November 2017

Theatre Review - Young Marx - Bridge Theatre

On my second outing with the small group of theatre-going companions gathered together by the intrepid Elizabeth the play was Young Marx, written by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman. It’s in London’s newest theatre, Bridge Theatre, beautifully situated near Tower Bridge. I met two more members of the group with Elizabeth for coffee in the foyer bar and free madeleines came with the tickets. A good start!

The seating design is unusual, with mainly stalls seating and narrow balconies at the higher levels. It feels intimate but seats up to 900 and was packed for the Sunday matinee. We were just two rows from the stage, my favourite position to see how everything is working. The sets were especially effective, all constructed in a cube that revolved to provide various street exteriors and building interiors.

The play starts with Marx selling his wife’s family silver quite literally but being suspected of stealing it and running from the police. He’s thinking of giving up on his political writing and taking a job at Paddington Station, which could help him pay for a doctor for his son and might save his marriage, although it’s a bit working class for a woman from her wealthy background. She’s packing clothes just retrieved from the pawnbroker and is about to leave him.

If this all sounds serious, that’s not how it’s treated. The opening scenes are farcical and there’s much running around in true Keystone Cops style. Marx shins up walls, up the chimney in his home, and into a cupboard to hide from the police. He makes light of his wife’s packed case with jokes that are irritating snipes rather than laugh-out-loud humour. I wasn’t sure if I was going to like it but soon found it was an extraordinary blend of farcical humour, satire, ridiculous jokes my dad might have told, and serious scenes that could shock and be emotionally moving. Not an easy combination to pull off.

The promotional blurb describes Marx as ‘emotionally illiterate’ and that certainly comes across. It also says he’s ‘young’ and ‘horny’, which is misleading. He’s in his thirties with a wife and two children and although he has an affair with a woman who loves him, this happens in the context of a failing marriage. He has important work behind him and his friend Engels is determined to get him writing again and to help him keep his family together.

There are parallels with the present day, with the Marx family subjected to racist taunts for being immigrants, and also arguing for and against acts of terrorism with their fellow activists. Marx and his wife both argue that they agree with the use of violence but they believe it would turn the British working class against them, especially if an attempt is made to assassinate Queen Victoria, who is loved by her subjects.

Some anachronistic comedy works well, including Marx saying at this point that there’s no need for violence to destroy capitalism in Britain as the banks will end up doing so much damage that they will leave the door wide open to change. Nobody could fail to see the irony of that belief. There are also silly anachronistic jokes, like the policeman saying he’s ‘done a course’ when Marx thanks him for not using violence.

The humour can suddenly vanish as the scenes become serious, such as Engels describing the living conditions of the poor in Manchester. Marx has just described himself as ‘brutalised’, and Engels says he wouldn’t use that word for himself if he had seen Manchester. There was laughter from the audience, but then it became serious as Engels talked of the people working in the mills and living in crowded houses with mud and excrement deep outside for them to walk through. My own ancestors on my father’s side moved to Salford from Dublin at about the time this play was set due to new English laws destroying the Irish textile industry so this was a striking scene for me. They weren’t supported by the newly formed unions as the Irish were suspected as the cause for lower pay, with rhetoric very similar to the Brexit discourse these days. This isn’t mentioned in the play.

Two of the most successful scenes are a duel and a funeral. I won’t say too much about them so as not to ruin the plot, as the effect of the surprise on the audience is powerful. The duel absolutely startled me and was stunningly realistic even though I was close enough to see how it was all being done. In fact the fast moving scenes were all very well choreographed, which is impressive on the limited space of a stage. A fight breaking out in the British Museum Reading Rooms is also both funny and intricately arranged.

With the funeral the atmosphere is captivating from the moment the coffin is carried in to the moment the soil is shovelled into the grave to cover it. One of the weaknesses of the play, I felt, was a tendency to go for a cheap joke at every available opportunity, and this scene should have ended without a quip from Marx to his wife. He had finally shown some compassion and guilt and it would have been stronger to end on that note. There’s another point where his lover appeals to him with a dilemma and he responds with dialogue filled with jokes that aren’t funny. I could have done without some of the comedy as there were so many jokes and so many types of humour that worked well that the weak lines weren't needed, or the ones that undermined a situation that required a different response.

Richard Bean also wrote a version of the Carlo Goldoni comedy ‘Servant of Two Masters’, and the style of Young Marx reminded me of the more recent Italian playwright Dario Fo, whose work I enjoy very much. I was left with the feeling that Young Marx would have been better without some of the trite jokes at significant moments, especially as they gave an impression of a Marx almost completely lacking in empathy. In each case it could be seen that he needed to protect his reputation and was balancing the importance of his work for the many against the needs of the few close to him.

In place of the less successful jokes it would have been good to see a style more like that of Dario Fo in Accidental Death of an Anarchist, where improvisation is allowed to let the director add jokes that are relevant to each day’s news. With the current sex scandals in politics this could have added a whole new layer to the treatment of women in Young Marx. Parallels between Engels' description of Manchester, the treatment of the Irish there, and the similarity with the dialogue of Brexit could have been made. So I ended up liking the play but feeling there were opportunities missed and some jokes that could have been cut.

The acting was excellent, and the two children were particularly good. Design by Mark Thompson, direction by Nicholas Hytner and music by Grant Olding also contributed to the atmosphere and a feeling of energy and movement. Well worth seeing and the madeleines were fresh and tasty! Next up, The Ferryman at the Gielgud Theatre, unless Elizabeth slips an additional play in - she often does!



Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Theatre Review - The Seagull - Lyric, Hammersmith



I recently took a risk and met a total stranger to go to the Lyric, Hammersmith, to see Chekhov’s The Seagull with a total stranger. After years of trying and failing to get friends to go to the theatre with me I had given up as they either didn’t like the theatre or didn’t like the same plays. So when I saw an advert on NextDoor.com for neighbours to get in touch if they’d like to form a theatre-going group, I said I was in.

My new companion Elizabeth was waiting for me outside The Lyric, where a modernised version of The Seagull was dividing critics who mainly loved it but if they hated it, they really hated it. During the interval we discovered that it had also divided opinion between me and Elizabeth as she ‘was not enjoying it at all’ and said she would have left if I hadn’t been so clearly having a good time.

It’s certainly nothing like a traditional production of a Chekhov play, which seems to be the main reason for negative criticisms. The adaptation is by Simon Stephens and brings it to the present day with very little to identify it as originally Russian. Short skirts, long Russian names cut to first name only to sound contemporary, four-letter words and slang phrases like ‘what is he like?’ all create a different atmosphere to the angst we know and love in this kind of play.

The Seagull is a play about professional jealousy, writers and writing, and also about the theatre and acting, with unrequited love adding a more universal element. None of the characters love somebody who loves them back, while the narcissistic Irina fails to treat her only son Konstantin with love as she can only manage to love herself. His adulthood makes it harder for her to pretend she’s still young, while his girlfriend Nina is an up-and-coming actor, making her more desperate to prove she isn’t the ‘old has-been’ the resident farmer Leo accuses her of being in a rare honest outburst. Most of her friends know she can’t bear compliments going to anyone but her, and they humour her even when she insists she could play a 15-year-old.

Lesley Sharp is superb in the role of Irina, mostly funny, sometimes irritating, especially when she tries to steal the attention from her own son when he presents his over-written experimental play, and shockingly abusive when she loses control and destroys him with cutting criticism about his total lack of talent in her eyes. Brian Vernel is equally striking as Konstantin, ambitious to be a playwright, but aware of his own failings and the stronger effect of the simplicity of his mother’s lover Boris’s writing. His girlfriend Nina is also in thrall to the famous writer Boris, played by Nicholas Gleaves. At one point Konstantin stands at the front of the stage facing the audience while Nina tells him she loves Boris, not him, and his whole reaction is shown purely by facial expressions and an attempt to hold back tears.

There was some uneasy laughter as Irina persuaded Boris to leave with her and go back to the city after he asked her permission for 'just one night' with Nina. In the original play she may persuade him with some flattery, some begging, a hug or kiss and the question 'You are coming, aren't you?' but this takes on a whole new double-meaning when she undoes the belt of his trousers and gives him a very determined hand-job. If Lesley Sharp acts this out well, with the poignancy of desperation combined with comedy, Nicholas Gleaves' orgasm is also quite impressively realistic. As she wipes her hands with a tissue and passes one to him to clean himself down, her manipulation of him is as symbolic as her son's overly metaphorical plays.

Adelayo Adedayo as Nina bursts onto the stage with youth and energy at the start and is convincing in her adulation of Boris, her belief that nothing could be better than the life of a writer. Although he tries to disillusion her, explaining in a striking monologue how writing is like an addiction and how he is never living through experiences without jotting them down in a notebook to use, she remains faithful to her belief in art and isn’t frightened off by his idea for a story when he sees a seagull shot by Konstantin. He tells her he will write about a man who meets a girl who has lived all her life by a lake, like Nina, and how he breaks her like the seagull just because he has the time and nothing better to do.

The production did a great job in bringing out the comedy in the writing, with more humour added by the superb comic performances. Lloyd Hutchinson as Leo hasn’t been noted by the critics as he’s not a major character, but he was perhaps my favourite and I looked forward to each of his anecdotes, all funny and beautifully told in his Northern Ireland accent while all of the other characters completely ignored him. He was totally immersed in his own world and unforgettable.

In fact all of the characters are in their own world in this play and the production by Sean Holmes drew attention to this fragmentation. The gaps and silences between the characters as they gather together in a rural house by a lake worked well in the first part, but after the interval it sometimes felt as if it had fallen apart, perhaps intentionally. Time has passed and they have returned to the house, but they have all changed, especially Nina, the seagull of the title and of Boris’s story, which he has brought to completion and completely forgotten.

The cast all deserve a mention but space is brief so it can only be a summary. Michele Austin is a very natural Pauline, married but in love with the worldly and world-weary doctor Hugo, played by Paul Higgins – nice, happy with his lot, and causing misery in the woman he will not acknowledge openly.

Cherrelle Skeete as Marcia is a troubled young woman, like a present day Hamlet, unrequitedly in love with Konstantin and an admirer of his writing while others mock his overly symbolic and experimental style. Her love means nothing to him and can’t save him, as he remains devoted to Nina even though she tells him openly of her feelings for Boris. Marcia thinks she can overcome her love for Konstantin by marrying Simeon, who adores her, but while the audience appreciates him, she becomes more irritated by his affection. Raphael Sowole is completely believable in this role.

The Seagull is directed by Sean Holmes and runs until Saturday - it's well worth seeing. The Lyric is known for risk-taking and original productions and this is a prime example.

Next up I'll be seeing Young Marx at the Bridge Theatre and will keep you posted.



Saturday, 1 June 2013

Poetry Publishing. Is Nobody Making an Income?

Following on from my previous post about whether the difficulties in poetry publishing are new, I also want to talk about another myth that's circulating. Just because poetry publishers have difficulties with low profit margins, no profit margins, or running at a loss, this doesn't mean nobody is being paid. A lot of people are making an income from poetry publishing and it's the publishers who pay them. That's why the profit margins are so low.

One thing I'm most proud of at Ward Wood Publishing is that we started during the recession, in June 2010, and it's so important for entrepreneurs to create work and income that then circulates and is paid out to keep other businesses going. We always use UK printers, and with a book a month we are continually putting work and income their way. Our fiction and ebooks do help us maintain this level of work - so don't be put off ebooks as they do help finance poetry and print runs.

I often see discussions online where people are saying that 'nobody is making an income' if the publisher isn't, including the authors. This isn't right. Author royalties are part of the cost per book to a publisher and we have to factor this in when calculating our profit and loss. We pay 10% of cover price royalties to authors. In standard publisher contracts with most companies, authors can also get their own books at discount, and these are the copies they generally sell at events either at discount or with a mark up. So royalties and selling their own books are two ways authors can make an income. Travel expenses to the regular live events they need to hold do cut into this or eat it up.

I have heard that some poets don't have a contract from their publisher, and they get no royalties. I do feel there should be a contract for various legal protections, but I can understand publishers perhaps taking the approach that royalties are paid on net income rather than gross income, and this would lead to no royalties once costs are taken out.

Some of our authors also get funding from various arts councils to travel to events, and even to dedicate time to writing a follow-on book once they have been published. Some get teaching posts and writer-in-residence positions. As publishers, we pledge the high entry fee to the major awards, and the full amount of the prize money would go to the author. Book sales even after a major award win or shortlist may well not let us recuperate the extortionate entry fees (up to £10,000 plus additional promotional tour costs if shortlisted).

Publishers make the full investment and take all the risk. When discussing the financial difficulty for publishers due to the low profit margins in poetry publishing, it's important not to imagine this means others, including authors, don't get paid. If we didn't have to pay anybody we would have a reasonable profit margin per book. We have a high turnover financially, but the problem is that the costs involved in producing a book, and paying authors and others, mean that the income is almost equal to the outgoings. For this to change, books need to sell more than 500 copies (which doesn't happen with poetry) as this is the point where higher volume print runs can reduce the cost per unit.

There is a very simple answer to this if people want to support publishers and keep publishing outlets open, and that is to buy poetry direct from the publisher whenever possible. This does cut out a lot of additional costs that I'll outline below.

One irony in poetry retail is that poetry lovers used to go to the trouble of buying direct from publishers in the old days, before the internet and when it was harder to get our hands on the books we wanted. This really did help publishers and authors. Since the internet made it easier to find and buy poetry books, people not only want to buy online, they have become almost addicted to the idea that Amazon is the one-stop place to get books and information about them (and the information about whether or not a book is available is very faulty on Amazon and loses many sales).

This brings me to the point where I can list the other people making an income out of poetry publishing - the middle men we need to go through to get the books to buyers, whether they shop in the hight street or on Amazon or Waterstones and other websites.

Retailers, both online and in the high street, insist on buying from their favourite wholesalers who get stock from a distributor. So we have to have our books warehoused with a distributor (Central Books) and with a top wholesaler that shops and Amazon will use (Gardners). They don't charge us for this, not even for the warehousing, but they each take a cut on all sales. We then also need a book marketing agency to rep our books to shops and they also take a cut. Yes, we can market books to shops too, but the book rep gets them into more shops and only charges commission per sale. So it is worth our while having everything in place so books can easily get into the distribution channel no matter how people want to buy.

An alternative is to use Print On Demand using Amazon, but this is more costly per book for the quality we need, and also it doesn't let us warehouse and stock enough books with the distributor and wholesaler (well we could but it would be an expensive way to do it). The advantage is the POD makes books available worldwide on Amazon, but other retail methods are important too so we'd need both approaches.

Poetry book sales in the lower hundreds aren't a terrible thing. In fact I have a feeling poetry is thriving more than ever and has never been more popular. The problem is that, because we are paying so many people out of each book sale, the profit margin is low. If publishers aren't too savvy financially they can even get into a loss-making situation.

So please don't think nobody is making an income. A whole set of businesses are kept going by publishers like us and that's one of the achievements I'm most happy with during a recession, along with the opportunity to keep publishing outlets open for exceptional authors.

Entrepreneurs creating work for individuals and other businesses are a key factor in helping to pull us out of recession and we should probably get funding for that reason alone! We've done it all without funding though, as publishers anyway. Individual authors should keep applying for funding.

If you've been interested enough to read this far I'd just stress one point. The way to solve the problem for publishers is to buy direct from publisher websites as it makes a huge difference not having to pay the commission to distributors and wholesalers, and they are definitely doing fine with the bestsellers they also handle.

There really was one great thing about the Good Old Days and that was direct sales from publisher to buyer.









 
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