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!

Isabella and the Pot of Basil – William Holman Hunt

Isabella and the Pot of Basil – William Holman Hunt

It is fitting that my first contribution to this blog combines two of my great passions in art – John Keats and the work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – with a special moment that came about with the same ‘Wes Anderson magic’ that, for Cedric and me, has characterised the last six months of our lives.

On a chilly, bright March weekend, we visited Newcastle. I had never been so far north, and I was astonished by the city’s beauty. With an hour to spare, Cedric and I stumbled into the Laing Art Gallery. I was excited to see the painting under discussion printed on the outside wall of the gallery, so we had to go in for a peek. Being an avid Keatsian (in spite of my ongoing PhD in Keats studies) and a lover of Pre-Raphaelite art, I was dazzled by meeting this painting in person, as I had admired it for years on the cover of my Oxford World Classics Keats.


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. I could write forever of their paintings, poetry, beliefs and eccentricity – you can expect many more posts recommending their work.

Hunt took his subject here, as you may have guessed, from a poem by John Keats entitled Isabella, or The Pot of Basil. Keats adapted the story from a tale in Boccaccio’s Decameron, a collection of 100 tales by the celebrated Italian poet. The eponymous Isabella falls in love with Lorenzo, an employee of her cruel brothers who had intended to marry her ‘to some high noble and his olive trees’. Her brothers learn of their love and murder Lorenzo, burying him in the woods. After Lorenzo appears to Isabella in a dream, Isabella digs up Lorenzo’s head and buries it in a pot of basil. In Hunt’s painting, we can see a visual depiction of Keats’s words:

And she forgot the stars, the moon, and sun,

And she forgot the blue above the trees,

And she forgot the dells where waters run,

And she forgot the chilly autumn breeze;

She had no knowledge when the day was done,

And the new morn she saw not: but in peace

Hung over her sweet Basil evermore,

And moisten’d it with tears unto the core.

The poem ends after her brothers steal the pot of basil from her, having deduced that it contains Lorenzo’s head and evidence of their crime, and Isabella dies ‘forlorn,/ Imploring for her basil to the last’. 

Why do I like such a macabre painting and poem? Well, the painting’s sumptuousness is obvious, from the luscious basil leaves concealing their dark secret to the vibrant blanket laid over the prie-dieu that has become Isabella’s altar to Lorenzo. The poem is a fanciful tale, but nonetheless taps into relatable human emotions of grief, anger, distraction, and heartbreak and renders them beautifully.

On reading around the painting, I was touched to discover that Hunt begun the painting while in Florence with his wife, Fanny, who was pregnant. She died after giving birth, and Hunt immortalised her in Isabella’s features in a strange reversal of roles – Isabella’s features, those of Hunt’s wife, are hauntingly blank with grief, but perhaps Hunt was channelling some of his own grief here. The basil pot and the painting itself are curiously united, both being built and nourished by melancholy, both providing life in place of death. It was the idea of immortality through art that inspired some of Keats’s most famous poems, and although I believe in an immortality beyond plants that may wither and paintings that may burn, it is deeply human to seek life over death, even in the midst of sorrow.

So, if you find yourself in Newcastle, have a poke around the Laing. You will see this nearly 2m-high masterpiece, as well as a wall of teapots and teacups that delighted me almost as much. 

 

Le Byblos, Tours – Exciting Dining, Vieux Tours

Le Byblos, Tours – Exciting Dining, Vieux Tours

Co-authored by Charlotte and Cedric

Picture the scene: we are in the middle of Tours, we have just been amazed by the Museé du Compagnonnage and are famished. Our next stop on the helter skelter day trip we had planned was a delightful little Lebanese place called Le Byblos. The reader should note, it was around 5 degrees and raining at the time, so we three were quite keen to get inside a warm restaurant.

We chose a mezze menu comprising of 9 dishes which were a mixture of meat and vegetarian. The first course of mezze was cold, including baba ganoush, moussaka, houmous, stuffed vine leaves, a fattoush salad and flatbread. We were astonished throughout the meal by the variety and flavours offered. The baba ganoush was a particular triumph. This dish is comprised of roasted eggplant, eggplant, olive oil, lemon juice, various seasonings, and tahini. I (Charlotte) had never had moussaka cold before, and its rich, tangy sauce seemed to have been intensified by a long chilling time. The vine leaves were suffused with lemon and melted in the mouth despite being cold.

By the time the second set of dishes arrived, we were itching for more. This rather blurry photograph shows the first part of the hot mezze. The chicken was rather humorously taken from us to have an extra layer of seasoning added. I told the waiter the chicken was excellent by itself, to which he responded “Yes, I know it very well, but it would be better with more seasoning”. Reader, it was indeed better. This was the first chicken we had sunk our teeth into since giving up meat for Lent, hence you can imagine our salivating, then having our dish swiped from under our noses! The falafel, with 7 vegetables. including ground chickpeas and broad beans. Now, there is a stall at Birmingham Bullring Markets called Mr Falafel, who does excellent falafel. Charlotte has just reminded me that the Damascena falafel, too, was exquisite. However, the Byblos falafel was transcendental. Suffused with layers upon layers of flavour, it rendered us speechless.

Finally, we enjoyed two kinds of arayes, one with beef and one with cheese. The meat one comprised minced onions , seasonings, and fresh herbs. Arayes are grilled or pan-fried before serving. I found the cheese filling a bit thin but by this point we had eaten so much that we were grateful for the brief respite.

Charlotte would like to add that the mint tea she consumed was top quality.


On the way out of the restaurant, one is treated to a fabulous woven tapestry / rug with the Virgin Mary on it, which was most amusing.

Overall this was a staggering experience, shockingly economical and unexpectedly comical. Please, if you have the time and are in the region, do visit Le Byblos.

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.