Thursday, 18 June 2015

Review. The Inaugural University of Reading Town Hall Lecture. Stephen Fry on Oscar Wilde. Reading Concert Hall. Thursday 4 June.

There is no doubt that Stephen Fry is both eloquent and erudite and so clearly the best choice to present this inaugural lecture. However, my first concern was whether Fry's large celebrity presence would eclipse the true subject, Oscar Wilde. 

However, I am glad to state that on the night all was well. He demonstrated his enthusiasm and love of Wilde's poetry, prose, and drama to his rapt audience.He blended his own life into the sad tale of ‘Oscar’ by recounting how after coming across The Importance of Being Ernest he found himself overwhelmed by the play’s brilliant use of  language. This led him to the local mobile library, in his native Norfolk, to look further, first the play itself and then, the Complete Works. It led to many discoveries both literary and personal.

Although the plays had been the initial trigger for him, he spoke of Wilde in the broader sense, seeing him as more than a playwright and poet but as a true philosopher. As examples, he made particular reference to Oscar’s other writings such as the Soul of Man under Socialism and De Profundis.

De Profundis was written between January and March 1897, very close to the end of his incarceration at Reading where he was serving a two-year sentence. At the prison, Wilde was merely ‘Prisoner C3.3.’ He later used that as a pseudonym for his other eminent poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol. The ballad recounts the tale of his fellow prisoner Charles Thomas Woolridge; a former soldier tried before Berkshire Assizes, sentenced to death, and finally hung in July 1896.

The prison looms large in Reading, still casting its sinister shadow over the Abbey and the Kennet. Wilde’s cell is intact and Fry was lucky enough to have visited it the day of the lecture. I hope that one day we may have that privilege, as it is a significant part of literary history and a dark episode in the town’s history.

He finished his lecture and took a few questions from the audience. His responses further demonstrated his passion for his subject. The evening was no dry academic treatise but an entertaining, enlightening, and best of all, accessible. One could feel the enthusiasm. I feel sure that many will have gone away with a new respect for Wilde, to see the man in a new light and maybe to look beyond his plays, and make new discoveries. I sincerely hope so.

This review first appeared in the Newbury Weekly News.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Review. Much Ado About Nothing. Reading Between The Lines Theatre Company. St James’Church, Reading. February 2015

Much Ado About Nothing has long been celebrated as one of Shakespeare's most popular comedies. The central relationship, between Benedick and Beatrice, is wittily combative and reluctant until love prevails.

Moreover, that ‘combative’ is appropriate to this here  as we are not in Shakespeare’s Sicilian Messina but in a more poignant post Afghanistan garrison town, ‘Messina-Upon-Thames’. The returning soldiers, weary from fighting, pass their newfound leisure time in devising schemes and sharpening their wits on each other. A contemporary setting is sometimes difficult to pull off but here it worked perfectly. It certainly added an edge to the play, a play that on the page relies on verbal dexterity and wit.  Without the reinterpretation and enthusiastic approach, it could so easily be dry and challenging.

Furthermore, choreographed by Sammy Fonfe and music by Benjamin Hudson it resulted in an exciting, modern and accessible production.

I have one concern though. The drama takes place ‘in the round’ making the most of St James’s Church. Yet, on several occasions, I was unable to appreciate some of the nuances or even at times fully hear some of the dialogue. Actors standing four-square in front of me blocked my view. For example when Beatrice, eavesdrops on Hero and Ursula I was unaware of her reactions to the ‘false sweet bait’ that they lay before her. How did she react? Was it with scorn or with baffled amusement?  It would have helped in my understanding, especially as I came relatively new to the work.

All the performances were spot on especially the protagonists, Max Roll’s Benedick, Dani McCallum’s Beatrice, Lucy Grattan’s Hero and finally Phil Dunster as Claudio. To be fair, the rest of the cast ably supported them including the ‘interns’, those ‘aspiring professional actors’ who took on the lesser roles.

This was the third Shakespeare they have produced and it is to their credit that the company are bringing professional theatre to Reading. Something we desperately needed. I am not the only one saying this and it was good to see that even The Guardian chose Much Ado as one of its ‘top tickets’ this week. Praise indeed.

This is an edited version of a review published in The Weekly Newbury News, February 12th 2015.

Image © Ian Legge