Sunday, February 22, 2009

Theatre: Where There's a Will

Arts Theatre, Cambridge, 21/2/2009.

One could ask what one of our leading theatrical knights - a former director of the RSC and the National Theatre, pushing 80 - is doing touring the provinces with an early pocket-sized Feydeau farce. The answer, though, is quite likely "having fun", or maybe "very well, thanks". (Okay, it also turns out that his wife, Nicki Frei, was responsible for this new translation.) His program notes suggest that Peter Hall sees this play as a formal theatrical exercise... But that sounds too po-faced for what is actually an effective comedy executed in an attractive production. Very attractive, actually; the scene is the reception room of a Parisian town house, decorated in light Art Nouveau style, and the cast look dead stylish in Edwardian costume. It's great to look at. I thought that the cast were good, too, quick and straight-faced; for a while I thought that Sara Stewart was channeling Felicity Kendal, but actually I think itwas just a similar intonation (and the sort of part she was playing).

The farce is up to Feydeau's usual standards - more talky rather than slapstick by some standards, but with a certain amount of climbing in and falling out of windows. The plot also leans on some very theatrical, possibly distinctly period use of hypnotism, although this isn't over-used. It naturally also features the sort of total amiable sexual amorality that gave France such a reputation for naughtiness among straight-laced Anglo-Saxons of the time.

Anyway, I enjoyed it.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Recent Reading: Gun, With Occasional Music

This book has been sitting on my shelf for a while, but I finally pulled it down while in search of reading matter the other day, remembering or being reminded as I did so that it was Lethem's first novel, and that he seems to have acquired a lot of semi-mainstream literary credibility in the years since it came out.

The blurb and interior review quotes lead me to expect a mixture of hard-boiled detective story and dystopian SF, which I got, but the book is perhaps even more significantly an example of School Of Philip K. Dick. Dick's influence on a certain sort of highbrow American genre SF writer is huge, and Lethem here has exactly that Dickian tone of faintly surreal, sun-bleached futurism, and a very large dose of the Dickian (literary) interest in mind-altering drugs. The blurb also lead me to expect something funny, which I didn't get; the Dickian quasi-surrealism, and especially the talking animals which loom large in the plot, might have a certain Pythonesque quality, but any laughs are lost in the noir-meets-dystopia looming darkness of the setting.

The detective story elements, by the way, reminded me of the movie Brick; they treat numerous tropes of the classic Hammett/Chandler movies as a kind of modern Commedia Dell'Arte framework, to be reused on the assumption that the audience will recognise them. Though I have to say that I enjoyed Brick more. Nor is the mystery plot especially strong; eventually, the hero solves his case, but mostly by coming up with a story which arguably fits the facts marginally better than anything else available, and which is more satisfying to the lead characters' sense of the world.

I should also note that the SF elements of this novel are, in true Dickian style, subservient to the other aspects; the dystopia is low-key and mostly a matter of a world slipping down to noirish moral corruption, and the furniture is very consciously retro. Even in 1994, when this book appeared, the complete absence of mobile phones and the limited use of computers - all accessed through monochrome terminals rather than PCs - must have looked a little odd. But futurism isn't the point here. Anyway, it's a smart book, but not one I can love.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Recent Reading: Hexwood

by Diana Wynne Jones

I'm not on an Arthuriana kick at the moment, honestly. This book didn't even admit to being Arthuriana until half way through.

Unlike a lot of people I know, I've only read bits and pieces of Diana Wynne Jones's work. For the benefit of those who've read even less of her than that, I should note that she's classified as a children's author - one of many who was doing rather good magical fantasy for kids years before J.K.Rowling first hit the coffee shops - but that she has a significant adult readership. I've quite liked most of her stuff that I have read, but I've never felt the urge to be systematic about it. However, Hexwood finally came to my hand the other day.

It turned out to be a bit of an oddity, to put it mildly. It's structured as a conventional children's fantasy in some ways, with a child protagonist observing strange goings-on in her vicinity and entering the nearby woods to discover more, but it's presumably intended for slightly older readers; aside from the very discreet references to sexuality, the structure very soon turns rather weird. The wood which our heroine observes, and the power which turns out to be playing a godgame with everyone involved, generate a wildly achronological plotline, with the people who our heroine meets appearing at different points in what seems to be a process of childhood, youth, and education when she visits at different times over a period of a couple of days. If I'd tried reading this when I was young, I think that I'd have found the repetition and lack of strong chronology very off-putting.

Anyway - things eventually expand, and turn more linear again. From past reading, I get the impression that Jones has a weakness for throwing in numerous new characters whenever she thinks that a plot needs some jazzing up, and here, we get a shift to a realm of galactic commercial politics, complete with a batch of sleazy corporate/palace villains who flail around trying to work out what to do about the problem that's developing on Earth. There are also lumps of backstory, much of it solid but some of it sadly underdeveloped, and the growing mass of Arthurian imagery, which for a while looks like it might, say, be an incidental by-product of the imaginative influence of a minor character, but turns out to be fairly crucial. (Although actually, the Arthurian imagery of many of the plot incidents is pretty much unconnected to the Arthurian elements in the backstory.) Then our plucky child heroine, who'd seemed likeable enough if underdeveloped as a character, turns out to have been just an aspect of an adult heroine who wanders in from a bunch of minor offstage jokes. (Having the heroine turn out to be a princess is all very well, but, well, honestly...) Then we get some dragons, with little apparent justification except that the book's godgame-playing grail seems to be capable of almost anything and is doing whatever will drive the plot in order to educate the lead characters, in a way that I'd only expect from the plotting of far less respectable children's authors.

I dunno. Maybe I'm missing something here. Maybe a lot. But Hexwood seems like a lot of under-digested ideas, cobbled together and rushed out. Fortunately, I do know that Diana Wynne Jones is capable of better.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Theatre: Life & Beth

Arts Theatre, Cambridge, 7/2/2009.

One of the many odd gaps in my theatrical education involves Alan Ayckbourn. I've seen a few things of his on the TV from time to time, I believe, but I'm not sure I'd caught any on stage until we got to Absurd Person Singular at the Arts last November. But, yesterday, we followed that up with Life & Beth.

Actually, I suspect that this is relatively minor Ayckbourn. It's not terribly long (under two hours with the interval), it's got a fairly small cast, and it doesn't seem to be readable as much of a big political allegory. It's also pretty well impossible to discuss without giving away bits and pieces of the plot, so please be warned if you're going to catch this...

Actually, though, one doesn't need to know a lot about the plot to find, say, the big theatrical coup at the end of the first act not very surprising. The thing is generally a bit slight, to be honest; the overt jokes are few and far between, and only the central character is allowed any development; one of the others comes on completely mute, for rather weak reasons, and just stays that way. As all of the (living) characters are living lives of apparently-very-Ayckbournian quiet desperation, this makes the thing seriously bleak, if you let your attention shift from Beth herself. She ends up a bit better off, but by a not-very-startling route.

(Beth, by the way, was played by Liza Goddard, who ended up looking much more aged and careworn than she evidently does in reality. Marks for lack of actorly vanity there.)

The only things I was left wondering about were (a) how the central couple were so widely assumed to have a perfect marriage, when one of them was such a blatant, classical jerk, and (b) quite where Gordon actually went post mortem (assuming that he wasn't just a figment), as I think that there were some slightly dark hints.

All of which probably sounds much more negative than it should. The fact is that Ayckbourn can write, and create characters, and I'll be aiming to fill that gap in my education further in future, when the opportunity arises.

Recent Reading: To the Chapel Perilous

by Naomi Mitchison

I picked this up a while ago... I'm not sure where or how now, actually, possibly even as a freebie, but doubtless at a roleplaying game event; it was republished by Green Knight Publishing, who mostly existed to publish Greg Stafford's Pendragon RPG, but who also reprinted a whole slew of modern treatments of the Arthurian myths.

I suppose, picking this up and reading descriptions, that I was vaguely expecting a new look at the Arthurian stories, filtered through the anachronistic lens of modern journalism - a sort of smarter Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court, perhaps, or a more lit'ry Idylls of the Queen (the latter being Phyllis Ann Karr's unjustly forgotten stab at an Arthurian detective story). Actually, though, I think it's more a book about modern (well, mid-20th century) journalism, viewed through the lens of the Arthurian stories. I gather that Merlin (the editor of one of the newspapers in the story) is actually based on somebody Mitchison knew at the Guardian, and the news staff scenes have a certain period-specific tang of authenticity to them, clashing weirdly with the high-mythic feel of some of the grail quest action, especially early on in the plot.

Mind you, it's quite an abstruse sort of view of the nature of journalism - Mitchison was a literary novelist much more than she was a journalist - verging in places on a meditation on the nature of Truth and the processes by which one story/myth comes to dominate in the world of ideas, although others survive. It's also light on jokes, although there are some; I suspect it'd be funnier if you knew that journalistic milieu and period. And it does tend to tell rather than show, but I guess that's appropriate for a book about journalism, and one which perhaps assumes that readers know their Arthuriana fairly well.

All round, a bit of a period oddity, but not without interest, and I suspect it's really quite appealing to the real Arthuriana geeks.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Local Eating (1)

Somehow, we'd never previously managed to get round to eating at the Cabinet at Reed until today. Which was kind of silly. The one time we'd tried, the place was fully occupied. This was not so today, which presumably says something about either cold days in winter or cold economic conditions. (Although the place changed hands fairly recently, I believe; dunno if that's relevant.) We seemed to see precisely one member of staff while we were there - a chatty barman/waiter - but that was all that was needed front of house.

Anyway, this is yet another of those rather good pub-restaurants we seem to have dotted around the area in careless profusion, and the food was very much in that style; I definitely enjoyed my pea and gorgonzola risotto with artichokes, though by the end of the meal there was a definite sense of a place which didn't stint the fats. Anyway, recommended, and we ought to get back there slightly more often.

Expand, Contract (2)

By way of a follow-up to the previous post, I should say that the first draft of the 10,000 words of fiction was completed and uploaded by the contracted date - a little while ago now, actually. No feedback yet on that.

Which left me free to tackle the editing job - specifically, Cities on the Edge, by the esteemed Anders Sandberg. And despite a slight delay in my receiving the actual contract, that was delivered by the agreed delivery date (i.e. yesterday). So, assuming that we can keep this moving forward, the restarted Transhuman Space line should acquire a nifty book on cities in 2100, complete with Stockholm as a developed example. And now I'm waiting to see how some of my own, slightly less substantial efforts progress.

Hmm. Somewhere on my personal to-do list is a set of notes on Stuff I'd Like To See Proposed For Transhuman Space. Maybe I ought to put that together this week.

Oh, and GURPS Thaumatology can now be said to have paid out its advance. Which is nice.