Wars of the Roses – Henry VI Part 3 – Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford Upon Avon

Wars of the Roses – Henry VI Part 3 – Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford Upon Avon

Charlotte and I could scarcely believe our luck when Partner Adam at the firm sent through an email inviting us to see the final instalment of the Henry VI trilogy, director Owen Horsley’s Wars of the Roses. I had never been to the RSC before. I have cycled, walked and driven through Stratford, of course. And indeed we spent Charlotte’s birthday there, but I have never set foot in the RSC building itself. The stage was set as below, with the throne, the main object of the play, being in constant view. The throne, we noticed, sunk more gradually into the ground as the play progressed. By the end of the final act, the throne looked akin to a tombstone, which we suppose was the director’s purpose.

Opposing leaders, each asserting the legitimacy of their claim to power, sling insults and threats, unleash war. In the final section of Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy, advantage seesaws from side to power-and-riches-grabbing side. Then, as now, whichever faction gains temporary victory, the conclusion for ordinary people remains the same: death and desolation. Guardian

The first copy of the First Folio

The play tells a tale of nationhood and power. It covers the Wars of the Roses between 1460 and 1471, where various conflicts saw the crown of England pass between Henry VI and Richard Plantagenet (Duke of York). Henry VI, Part 3 has one of the longest soliloquies in all of Shakespeare and has more battle scenes than any other of Shakespeare’s plays, with four seen and one reported.

The performance was extraordinary. From the first to the last, the Duke of York (Oliver Alvin-Wilson) was compelling, emotive, and piercing. Henry VI (Richard Kant) was the picture of mental decline, hammered repeatedly by his losses to the point where he compares a Scottish shepherd to a King before being locked in the tower of London. Queen Margaret (Minnie Gale) was perturbing par excellence, with a memorable screaming soliloquy towards the end. But the best part of the whole play was the gay King of France, with full frilly silk gown and affected mannerisms. Charlotte, however, believes that the minor, light relief provided by the King of France (not even noted in the cast list on the RSC website) was not the height of this masterpiece.

I (Charlotte) believe that the best part of the play for me, if there can be one best part, was the touching moment Cedric mentions above, when King Henry lies on the stage and praises the wisdom and peace of a shepherd over the splendour of a king. The King has fled, leaving his wife furious over his agreement to disinherit their only son in order to keep the crown only for the duration of his own life. His low moment allows sober reflection to produce a thought a lot of us must have had: couldn’t my life be simpler? Don’t our systems of power overcomplicate things? Ironically, the King regains some of his haughtiness immediately afterwards when he insults two commoners that stumble upon him and recognise him as the exiled monarch, but this doesn’t detract from the pathos of the soliloquy.

The impression of the chaos of war is the most powerful aspect of director Owen Horsley’s Wars of the Roses, one of two new RSC productions based on the Henry VI plays . Design (mud and ramps), costumes (armour, chainmail, robes), digital projections (stage battles filmed live and projected huge on to ribboned curtains), music and sound (clashing percussion and nerve-taut strings), along with performances (comradely chants, battle-weary panting, groaning of the mortally wounded) combine to emphasise the brutality and futility of violence. Guardian

I have heard said that there is no space like the RSC to see Shakespeare performed. I (Cedric) am in full agreement with this. The set was phenomenal, with grey rock in the centre, a raised platform to the left and sinking throne on the right, eventually, as has been said above, giving the appearance of a grave stone. The play’s splendour was further heightened by the live camera work. A chain link curtain ascended and descended in the back of the stage, onto which were projected words, dates and even live footage from cameras brought in to film pertinent parts of the play. For example, the touching part where a soldier, after a battle, is about to loot the corpse of a vanquished foe, only to discover it is his son, is both played out on stage and his face projected onto the metal curtain above the stage. This added to the harrowing scene, depicting with searing detail the reality of war.

This play and this production were unquestionable masterpieces. We (Cedric and Charlotte) highly recommend you attend it forthwith!

The play will show at the RSC until 4 June.

Three Favourites – May 2022 Edition

Three Favourites – May 2022 Edition

Hello and welcome to this month’s edition of my favourite album covers. Regrettably my new role at work is rather demanding so I am unable to listen to as much music as I might have done previously. However, I have three excellent covers for you below.

Phillipe Herreweghe – Fauré Requiem (2007)

I did think this cover looked familiar to me. The reason being that I have seen this beautiful sculpture of Saint Cecilia by Stefano Maderno in the church itself, while I lived in Rome. This cover is simple but effective. One comment I read in the Amazon reviews of the CD of this album (Charlotte had the inspired idea to gift me the vinyl for my Birthday, which I listened to on the day of writing this post) described it quite well. It read “I felt like the sculpture in the cover when the album was over”!. An inspired piece of music, and an exquisite cover.

Bruce Hornsby ‘Flicted (2022)

Originally a member of the Grateful Dead (don’t you know), Bruce Hornsby’s 2022 offering was sighted on a new joint playlist my father and I made on Spotify. In the playlist I was struck by a rather amusing cover, with Hornsby standing by a house in the shape of a cafetiere. And, as an additional boon, this is the most recent album to feature in this list.

My Life in the Bush of Ghosts – Brian Eno and David Byrne (1981)

This album threw itself at me with shocking force. The Rothko-esque cover is alarmingly colourful. I love the gradual waves of colour and the nothingness of it, which indeed mirrors the album in a way, which is a landmark in its own right.

As David Byrne describes in his liner notes, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts placed its bets on serendipity: “It is assumed that I write lyrics (and the accompanying music) for songs because I have something I need to ‘express.’,” he writes. “I find that more often, on the contrary, it is the music and the lyric that trigger the emotion within me rather than the other way around.”

I shall see you again for the June edition of (?) Favourties!

The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple – William Holman Hunt

The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple – William Holman Hunt

Once again, I am in the debt of my darling Charlotte for convincing me, in spectacular fashion, to let go of my reticence vis a vis Pre-Raphaelite art. This painting depicts an important moment in the Gospel of Luke. It is also the fifth of the Joyous Mysteries of the Holy Rosary. In the passage, quoted below, Mary and Joseph are on their return from Jerusalem, after celebrating Passover, when they notice Jesus is missing. They turn back to Jerusalem and find Him in the Temple, in discussion with teachers and doctors. This is an important passage in the Gospels as it sheds light on Jesus’ youth, and indeed is the only passage which mentions this hidden period of the saviour’s life.

As Charlotte wrote in her splendid post on Isabella and the Pot of Basil, by the very same artist:

The painter responsible for this bizarre delight is William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. As their name suggests, the group of artists and their followers sought a return to the style of art that had flourished before Raphael. They favoured exquisite detail and vibrant colour over what they perceived to be the dull conventions of the day, and they often took inspiration from the Bible and works of literature for their striking pictures.

The passage from the Gospel of Luke is below:

The Boy Jesus in the Temple.

41 Every year his parents used to go to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover. 42 And when Jesus was twelve years old, they made the journey as usual for the feast. 43 When the days of the feast were over and they set off for home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents were not aware of this. 44 Assuming that he was somewhere in the group of travelers, they journeyed for a day. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends, 45 but when they failed to find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple, where he was sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard him were amazed at his intelligence and his answers. 48 When they saw him, they were astonished, and his mother said to him: “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been searching for you with great anxiety.” 49 Jesus said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” 50 But they did not comprehend what he said to them. 51 Jesus Grows in Wisdom and Grace. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and he was obedient to them. His mother pondered all these things in her heart. 52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in age and in grace with God and men.

This painting is turbulently mind blowing. There is such a wealth of sumptuous beauty that I do not know where to direct my gaze. Jesus is the centre piece of my life and this painting, so I suppose I should begin there. Dressed in regal blue, and with faint glow behind his head, he is the subject of the audience’s rapt attention. His face is spotless and free from anguish, in sharp contrast to Mary, his mother, who must have been worried sick. Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph, is not best pleased. I imagine this painting was depicting the moment after Jesus said to his father “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s work?”. Note the capitalisation of the F. Jesus is reminding St Joseph that he is is not Jesus’ Father in heaven. Joseph’s consternation at this reprimand is visible in the painting.

Moving on, then, to the background of the temple. The gold and colourful jewels, and the lattice patterns are rendered with such delicate care that one is left breathless. Holman Hunt was focussed on creating ethnographically accurate pieces of art. The doctors and rabbis are modelled after local people in the Middle East, where Holman Hunt travelled. As well as studying the local people, he studied ancient Judaic customs and rituals. Their expressions in the painting, varying between consternation and fascination, capture the panoply of reaction they must have had to the child Jesus. The colours, the details and the thoughtfulness which has gone into this piece is overwhelming.

I believe Holman Hunt will have been familiar with, and taken inspiration from, Bernardino Luini’s Christ Among the Doctors, pictured below. The below captures with similar masterfulness, the varied reaction to the child Jesus’ questioning and conversation with men supposedly older and wiser than He.

Bernardino Luini – Christ Among the Doctors

[The] Religious art of Hunt is a unique piece of creation, and represent[s] a great opportunity to understand the idea of morality in the Pre-Raphaelite era and the ambition of the whole movement in delivering of their message. The Bunget

Like my beautiful Charlotte, I could talk endlessly about this painting. Indeed I hope to have it framed somewhere in my home so I can admire it endlessly. But alas, I will stop here. More Pre-Raphaelite art to come!

Mahler, Symphony No.1 ‘Titan’ – AOTM April 2022

Mahler, Symphony No.1 ‘Titan’ – AOTM April 2022

Charlotte and I were delighted to find Mahler 1 was playing at Symphony Hall last month. We went to see it and were spellbound from start to finish. Each of the movements are so distinctive from one another. The last time I wrote a classical AOTM was my favourite recording of the Bach violin concertos, which took some hours of research. Alas I do not have such a luxury at my disposal so I shall write about this symphony briefly.

Mahler’s first four symphonies are often classed as his “Wunderhorn” group owing to thematic and emotional links with settings of songs from the anthology of German folk poems “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” (“Youth’s Magic Horn”). Strictly speaking, the First Symphony doesn’t fulfil this criterion for inclusion as a “Wunderhorn” symphony as its thematic and emotional links are with Mahler’s first song cycle, “Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen” (“Songs of a Wayfarer”), of which both words and music were written by him under the influence of first love and rejection. But it’s a useful classification because the Wayfarer songs and the First Symphony do inhabit the same thought and sound world of symphonies 2,3, and 4. Musicweb

The first movement starts with a glorious a seven-octave-spread A, played “as quietly and ethereally as possible by the strings, a shimmer of sonority that sounds out the whole compass of the orchestra” according to the Guardian.  Mahler first conducted this in 1889 in Budapest. I can only imagine what it must have been like to be in the audience. Mahler wrote in 1893 that the first movement represented the waking of Nature after a long winter.

The second movement is a lot of fun, with a dance-like motion evolving into crescendoing (yes that is a word) dynamic and tempo and then back to a waltz.

The third movement is based on the tune of Frère Jaques. It starts off slowly but picks up beautifully over the course of ten minutes. Mahler described this movement as a satiric cartoon of “The Hunter’s Funeral” turned into musical life, a vision of a hunter’s coffin drawn by animals.

…with a slow movement that incorporates street bands, klezmer inflections, and the tune known as “Frère Jacques”, and whose final movement will rail against the cosmos with symphonic music’s most terrifying expressionist outburst, and which, at the end of its drama, will find a sheer musical joy that’s both a transcendence of the bodily and the spiritual, in the most uninhibited, tumultuous noise the orchestra had yet made. Guardian.


The fourth movement is described by the composer as “Dall’inferno” or, ‘from Hell’. The opening is breathless and breathtaking. It continues throughout on the theme of ‘a great cry from a wounded heart’, which the conductor has ascribed to it. This recording is taut, without any hint of over expression or exaggeration. The middle section is deceptively calm and calming after the outburst from the beginning, but one does not rest easy for long, with the final minutes erupting in devastating fashion.

…the achingly moving slow music at the centre of the finale that balances the terrifying cry into the abyss the movement opens with, the way Mahler paces the final climax, storming the orchestral heavens with an apotheosis of D major. Guardian

By 1896, Mahler referred to Symphony No.1 as simply “Symphony in D Major”, so as not to limit its potential meaning. Whichever nomenclature we choose, this piece is an absolutely staggering all encompassing experience. It still captures, in this recording, the freshness and excitement it has in 1889. Mahler 1 holds an eternal quality, standing on the musical shoulders of Bruckner and Beethoven, morphing these two main influences into something large and frightening. It shocked Charlotte and I to our core, leaving us both stunned and speechless for many minutes afterwards, as we drifted on a cloud down Broad Street in the dark.

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas – Caravaggio

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas – Caravaggio

Today is the second Sunday of Easter, known as Low Sunday. The Gospel reading at Mass is St Thomas doubting the resurrected Jesus in in fact the risen Lord. I have included the reading below (emphasis added). I did a post on The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Rubens, which so moved me at the Rijksmuseum. This other masterwork was accomplished by Caravaggio. It is now in the Sanssouci Picture Gallery, in Potsdam, Germany.

Gospel John 20:19-31

In the evening of that same day, the first day of the week, the doors were closed in the room where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews. Jesus came and stood among them. He said to them, ‘Peace be with you’, and showed them his hands and his side. The disciples were filled with joy when they saw the Lord, and he said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. ‘As the Father sent me, so am I sending you.’

After saying this he breathed on them and said: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain, they are retained.’ Thomas, called the Twin, who was one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. When the disciples said, ‘We have seen the Lord’, he answered, ‘Unless I see the holes that the nails made in his hands and can put my finger into the holes they made, and unless I can put my hand into his side, I refuse to believe.’ Eight days later the disciples were in the house again and Thomas was with them.

The doors were closed, but Jesus came in and stood among them. ‘Peace be with you’ he said. Then he spoke to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; look, here are my hands. Give me your hand; put it into my side. Doubt no longer but believe.’ Thomas replied, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him: ‘You believe because you can see me. Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe.’

There were many other signs that Jesus worked and the disciples saw, but they are not recorded in this book. These are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing this you may have life through his name.

This 1602 painting is unquestionably a masterpiece. The risen Christ, whom we acclaim and celebrate in this Easter time, appears to St Thomas and asks him to put his hand in Jesus’ side in order to believe that he has indeed been raised form the dead. In so doing, Christ has defeated death, not only for himself but for all of the faithful. This is truly the cornerstone of the Christian faith so it was important that the artist did this moment justice. I believe he did.

You can see that St Thomas is the central figure in this painting. His strained belief can be seen by the wrinkles in his forehead. Behind him are most likely St Peter and St John the Evangelist. The lack of halo on Christ’s head emphasises his corporeal form. The Rubens painting of the same scene showed a faint glow behind Christ’s head but no halo.

There is heavy chiaroscuro throughout the painting, increasing the drama of the scene. Jesus is depicted brightly, as though the shadow is cast by light emanating from him. All of the fabric is rendered beautifully and the painting has a generally quite striking aspect. This is indeed very moving for me. Modern Christians, of course, have not seen the risen Christ. I do count myself among the number who are blessed for not seeing, and yet believing. I hope this painting helped viewers throughout the last 420 years to feel similarly moved and compelled.