Saturday 18.03.2015

I like my literature and, as you may have guessed from my nom de plume, I ‘m partial to a bit of art history as well. The attraction to this event spotlighting two novels drawing inspiration from the world of art was, therefore, instantaneous.  Of course, I had to read both books before the event, amd what a fantastic experience that was. Well done, Aye Write, for leading me down this particular path.

the blue horsePhilip Miller’s debut novel, The Blue Horse charts George Newhouse’s quest to find a painting by a minor Dutch master, Pieter van Doelenstraat.   Noone is sure if the painting really exists – its existence has been deduced from a throwaway comment made by Doelenstraat’s contemporary, Rembrandt van Rijn – but Newhouse is on a mission to find it.  The novel starts with Newhouse taking up his new job as curator at the Public Gallery in Edinburgh – a gallery as troubled as its curator.  How can a small gallery compete with the National Galleries of the city.  How will the new guy focus on the task to hand when he is a emotional wreck, grieving still for his beloved late wife?

Miller is an arts correspondent – so he knows the good, the bad and the downright murky of the arts world. He was at pains to emphasise that no character is based on his real life acquaintanceship, although some of the events might be. The public gallery’s crisis is precipitated when one of the collections is withdrawn to be displayed in richer galleries in the Middle East. (An echo of what happened when the Duke of Sutherland decided to sell 22 paintings, then displayed in the National Gallery of Scotland.) Strange as it may seem, it would also be quite possible to stage an exhibition of Renaissance paintings graphically depicting Christ’s most personal part (See footnote.)

Stranger still is Miller’s imagination – actually distinctly weird, gothic and surreal.   (Terrifying, said Peggy Hughes, the Ayewrite chair.  Alienating, thought I.  The key to the novel, said the author. What do I know?, thought I.) The licence for these weird images, memories, fantasies, nightmares, realities – you can’t actually be sure  – is George Newhouses’s disturbed mind which he feeds with too much alcohol and too many pills. The result is a pervading sense of menace.  Newhouse (and others) might be looking for a painting, but it appears that the painting is also looking for them!

Miller admitted that this isn’t his first novel.  The first was rejected by publishers.  Too boring, they said. Well, That’s not an accusation  they can level here.  Grief-stricken George Newhouse is an anti-hero you can feel for despite his not inconsiderable flaws.  The gothic menace hauents me still and the denouement involving a (real) underwater nightclub, Russian oligarchs, black yachts, The Blue Horse and Venice in flames left me wondering how on earth we got there?  That’s quite some some ride from Edinburgh.

Will and tomLet Venice be a seque. It was one of Turner’s oils of Venice  that switched me onto him in a huge way. Hence the itch to read Plampin’s Will & Tom, which tells of a week in the lives of painters J M W Turner (who needs no explanation) and Tom Girtin (now largely forgotten).

If George Newhouse is on a mission to find a lost painting, Matthew Plampin is on a mission to rehabilitate Tom Girtin, a talented painter who died at the age of 27, of whom Turner said “Had Girtin lived, I would have starved.”

The week in question takes place in 1797 at Harewood House in Yorkshire, when both painters were commissioned by Edward Viscount Lascelles (known as Beau) to paint his magnificent home. Whether they were both there at the same time is not certain  – the evidence is flimsy and based on Turner’s including two minute figures in one of his paintings of the estate. This one perhaps?

Will & Tom?

EDIT: No it’s not that one – it’s this one and the figures are camoflagued against the hill.

harewood d Castle from the East

Plampin feels that the figures are too considered a detail to have no meaning.  He argues that Turner is making a rather grumpy point about how the two of them conducted themselves on the estate. Grumpy? Turner?  Indeed so even as a young man of 22. An artist from humble background (Maiden Lane in Covent Garden, his father was a barber, his mother a lunatic) making his way on pure merit, earnest, no social airs or graces and no idea of how to conduct or articulate himself among the aristocracy.  Contrast this with Tom Girtin, also of humble background, but willing to adapt,  to change his accent, be charming and to engage with his aristocratic benefactors.  That’s why he is given a room above stairs while Will (if I may be so free) is billeted with the servants.  Tom is also a bit of a libertine, not hard-working.  The one Turner has painted lying on his back …

He does a fair bit of that in the novel as well.  He begins an affair with Mary Ann, Beau’s disgraced younger sister.  All Will wants to do is complete his commission and continue with his Northern tour but this complication makes him stay.  He recognises the danger but wants to ensure his friend escapes without a scandal, career intact. Therein lies a delicious irony because something underhand is at work,  and the longer Will stays, the deeper the hole he digs for himself.

Plampin wasn’t interested in portraying Turner as the institution he became in latter life.  My Will is a strange little man having an incredibly odd week, he said.  He is also naive and vulnerable, and there’s the still-room maid,  Mrs Lamb,  who knows how to play those vulnerabilities to maximum effect. Will is warned multiple times that she is no friend of his, but he will not listen.  Vulnerable and obstinate.  His own worst enemy.

Did any of this happen?  Does it matter?  Plampin feels no responsibility to the historical record.  My job as an historical novelist is to explore the realms of the possible and the probable, he said. As a reader, I felt uncomfortable  – these shenanigans were highly unlikely but then, suddenly I was worried for Tom, worried for Will and I was loving the meticulous setup.  The layers of wash and colour. The fine brushstrokes had pulled me in.  About 2/3rds of the way through, I began to fret about reaching the end!

Rich seams of historically accurate detail highlighting the attitudes of the aristocracy to their benefactees, the origins of the Lascelles’ wealth, the complex relationship between Girtin and Turner, their diverging paths, and a skillful exposition regarding the technicalities of C18th watercolouring more than balance the rather fanciful, though appropriately romantic plot.

The role that money and class plays in the fine arts is a theme shared with The Blue Horse.  There is also a lost artwork – Girtin’s Eidometropolis which perished in a fire in the C19th. Fortunately his watercolours survive and, right now, Harewood House is exhibiting the paintings that both artists produced for Beau Lascelles.  If I lived closer, I’d visit in a heartbeat.

The Blue Horse  35_stars.GIF / Will & Tom 4_stars.GIF

(Footnote: I’m not being coy, I just don’t want a particular search term leading to my part of the blogosphere.)

Forgive me for misquoting the bard.  Tis proof that I need to refresh/read up on my classics and something that I will now do, having attended Andy Miller’s motivational crash course in literary appreciation.  It was the opening event of Ayewrite 2015 and, as we walked into the Burns library, we found Miller (henceforth known as Mr Motivator) leading by example, reading Malcolm Lowry’s Ultramarine. (Brave man.)

Before the fitness class proper began, there was a gentle opening exercise.  Each member of the audience was asked to nominate a book that they have always wanted to read and to sign the slip. Then to prove we were all awake, we had to wave the slips vigourously …. (That’s me, beige cardi, 1st row on the left.)

All slips were then put into a hat and placed on the stage until later ….

We then launched into the main routine as Mr Motivator led us through his 10 step plan to Read Y’self Fitter.  He did warn us that we would boo in places as his plan is somewhat controversial, but it’s highly amusing and entertaining too.  (If only all exercise were this much fun …)

I have copious notes – As you can see I waved my slip with so much vigour, my wrist was well warmed-up for the main  routine. I won’t detail the full plan here – just advise you to get yourself to a class at first opportunity – or to read The Year of Reading Dangerously, the reading for which gave birth to the plan.  Some highlights, however:

Mr Motivator’s credentials: He can only relax in libraries or book shops.  He believes that books are the best human beings are capable of and calls himself a bibliofundamentalist.

Key points:

1. We don’t all need to talk about “We need to talk about Kevin” to have a good time.  i.e variety is the key and it’s not necessary to follow the crowd.

3.  We are not as clever as Dan Brown – this followed #2, we are not as clever as George Eliot. i.e accept that stuff will go over our heads. There followed a brilliant explanation of why The Da Vinci Code has more in common with that classic Moby Dick than you can imagine .. Multiple reasons actually and it was very convincing on the night.

7.  The controversial one – get ready to boo – if you start a book, (try to) finish it.  If you don’t, you will never get the final payback from the last 30 pages of The Goldfinch, you’re not really engaging with the book on its own terms (rule 9)  and your opinion isn’t worth the same as that of someone who has read it cover to cover.  (I can hear the boos in the blogosphere from here.)  Once finished your opinion may not be right but at least it is an opinion you have earned and can hold with authority.

So to test it out – what do you think of Mr Motivator’s opinion of 100 Years of Solitude?  No, I can’t quote it – it was rude and designed to wind up the Marquez devotees in the audience. I thought it was brilliant – the opinion coincides with my own – the opinion that’s not worth much because I couldn’t finish it.  And – note to Mr Motivator – I’m not ever going to try.

Which brings us to the final exercise.  3 slips were pulled from the hat and the writers were asked to stand and publicly commit to reading the titles they had chosen.  John and Christine are now probably regretting signing up to Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time”, while June will have a much easier time with Blackmore’s Lorna Doone.  As for myself, I’ve committed to a book that I’m rather wary of ..

I hope it is as extraordinary to me as it is to others – although I suspect I may need the entire 10 point plan to motivate me through to the final page.  Time will tell.

This was a 5-star start to the 10th Ayewrite.  Follow that if you can ….

It seems as though I need cheering up – I’ve read more comedy this year than anything else.  Hence the second post in succession about comic novels; both of these set in Scotland, one extremely well-known, the other, not so much, but it should be.

Compton MacKenzie’s classic Whisky Galore is perfect for those long dark nights of winter: curled up with a suitable accompaniment.  (It must be the not so subliminal message!). The edition from Birlinn has a great dust jacket too!  Everyone in that whisky bottle seems to be having a great time.

One February morning in 1941, a cargo ship carrying hundreds of thousands of bottles of whisky ran aground a few sea-miles north of Compton MacKenzie’s home on the Hebridean island of Barra.  The islanders rushed to the rescue – the ship’s crew were safe, but the precious cargo? From such stuff was this spirited classic novel born.

Set in the same time frame as the historical incident, whisky is noted by its absence in the first half of the novel.  It is a strictly rationed substance as most of Scotland’s output was reserved for export to provide funds for the war.  The locals are disgruntled – one dram a day is their allowance, soon reduced further to one dram every two days,  The ration is distributed by the local landlord with draconian efficiency.  In addition, two couples wish to marry but cannot proceed to their nuptials without the Scottish nectar to oil the necessary ceremonies.

So when the ship is grounded and the rescue operation mounted ….the islanders are very happy … Or would be if the pesky customs and excise and home guard folk would leave them (and their booty) in peace.

MacKenzie (not a Scot, an Englishman and founder of the SNP) left Barra for England in 1944 and wrote this novel as a homage to the Hebrides in 1946.  His love for the islands, its people and their language is clear. The introduction to this volume identifies those characters who were modelled on the larger than life islanders of MacKenzie’s acquaintance.  So too other plot elements such as the Presbyterian/Catholic divide and rivalries of the Outer Hebrides, transposed without malice onto his two fictional islands: Great and Little Todday.  And the incomprehensibilty of the local lingo to foreign (English) ears.

“… really beautiful stuff.  You’ll just think you’re sippng cream.  Really a babe in arms would hardly know it was whisky. Uisge beatha.  Water of Life!” 

“That’s garlic, I suppose.”

“Ay, Gaelic it is.  What a pity you don’t know our glorious language.”

“Say that again, will you, Father Macalister’

Uisge beatha.”

“I see. Something like a sneeze and a yawn,” said Mrs Odd.

Nothing like the novel, I hasten to add.

Love, Revenge, Buttered SconesSwitching now from the west to the east of Scotland and Inverness,  Bobby Darbyshire’s Love, Revenge and Buttered Scones promises a treat that is as delicious as it sounds.  Particularly if you like the idea of a book group and an author event with unforeseen consequences.

Henry Jennings is Marjorie MacPherson’s biggest fan.  Having bombarded her with fan mail and love letters over the years, she invites him to a very special event at Inverness Library.  He decides to travel up from London to attend.  Things begin to go awry on the train – he spots his estranged younger brother and would-be poet, Peter, and is horrified when he also disembarks at Inverness.

He makes his way to the library, as does Peter.  Chaos ensures as he manages to avoid his brother, meets a lovely librarian, named Fiona (honestly, all Fionas are lovely), bumps into a Spanish lady called Elena and, of course, encounters Marjorie MacPherson, who surprises him in a way he cannot handle. One snowstorm, and a day later, a wounded Henry Jennings grabs his opportunity to flee Aberdeen, accompanying Elena to The Loch Craggan hotel to interview the reclusive author, Angus Urquhart. He is surprised to find Fiona is driving them there and horrified that Peter is already sitting in the front seat!

Nor is that the only unpleasant surprise for Henry because Marjorie MacPherson turns up at the hotel as well!  Poor man: chagrined beyond all measure, tormented by the cruel wit of his brother, can the new ladies in his life provide comfort?  What is about the old goat, Angus, who bounds up and down the mountains as sure footedly as a goat,  that binds Peter, Fiona and Elena together?  Who will find love, who revenge and who will settle for buttered scones?

I have no notes/no quotes to refer to because I was too busy turning the pages of this fantastic farce with melancholic undertones.  Embellished with loneliness, vanity, revenge, sexual politics and a chef who bakes buttered scones to die for!  Together with surprising happy endings for all.  The plot is, of course, slightly unfeasible, but who cares?

I read this novel as part of #tbr20.  My only regret is that it sat unloved in the TBR for nigh on 5 years before I did so.

Whisky Galore 4stars.GIF / Love, Revenge and Buttered Scones 4stars.GIF


The Table of Less Valued Knights – Marie Phillips 4stars.GIF

less Valued KnightsI was delighted to see this novel appear on the Bailey’s 2015 longlist.  I’d meant to read it on publication but then forgot about it.  How could I with such a colourful dustjacket?

Anyway my delight was compounded when I did read it.  It is everything that the dustjacket promises.

The seats at the round table in Camelot are reserved for the illustrious knights, as indeed are the Pentecostal quests.  Further back, away from the king, is a second table, reserved for the less-valued knights: those that have become doddery with age or inglorious through less than stellar performance.  They are not usually the questing sort although there are occasional and odd exceptions.

The exception here is very odd and involves Sir Humphrey de Val who effectively steals a quest from the Round Table when he agrees to help the lady Elaine find her kidnapped fiancé. They are accompanied by his squire, a little giant who rides an elephant, named Jemima.  It soon becomes clear that Sir Humphrey hasn’t got a scooby.  This quest involves nothing more than visiting the blacksmith in every village to determine who has recently purchased a black suit of armour. (It was the knight in black who absconded with Elaine’s fiancé.)  The pace picks up when a magic sword called Leila attacks Sir Humphrey.  Attached to the end of the sword is a young boy – actually Queen Martha of Puddock in disguise, who is fleeing from her marriage to a huge-toothed oaf named Edwin, and searching for her missing brother and rightful king

Thus do two quests collide and the result is a well-informed, hugely enjoyable and sometimes bawdy romp through Arthurian tropes populated by goodies (Queen Martha and Conrad, the little giant) and baddies (King Prince Consort Edwin and his brother, King Leo of Tuft), those with less than pure motives (Sir Humphrey and the Lady Elaine) and the downright confused (the Locum of the Lake “They needed somebody to cover. Usually I’m the Woman by the Well, and I started off as the Child at the Crossroads.”)  Pace and humour never flag and everyone gets what they deserve … apart from the poor unfortunate unicorn pictured bottom left on the cover (but at least his death isn’t gratuitous).

Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes 3stars.GIF
Translated from German by Jamie Bulloch
Longlisted for the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize

Another fantastic example of cover art and a superlative book trailer.

You’d think I’d have rushed to read this immediately on publication.  No, I circled round it for months, worried about the ethics of turning a monster into an object of fun.  “It’s not what you think” said the translator, when I queried him about it at last year’s IFFP prize-giving.  And still I circled …. It took this year’s IFFP long-listing for me to open the cover and read …

And guess what, it wasn’t what I thought it would be at all.

Adolf Hitler wakes up on a piece of wasteland in modern Berlin, in full uniform, character and ideology undiminished.  He needs time to get his bearings, time granted him when a newspaper kiosk owner, mistaking him for an out-of-work method actor, gives him shelter.  Introductions to TV executives and a career in television follow.  Hitler is rocketed to stardom and, because of his persona, he can say things that others cannot., things that people secretly agree with. People marvel at his ability always to stay in character, always sounding like Hitler.  This leads to some unexpected and laugh-out-loud exchanges.

Kiosk owner to Hitler on first meeting : “I still don’t recall seeing you anywhere.  Have you got a card? any flyers?

“Don’t talk to me about the Luftwaffe”, I said sadly. “In the end they were a complete failure”.

There’s plenty of situational comedy as well as Hitler comes to terms with the technological advances of the modern world and realises their potential for disseminating propaganda – the internet soon becomes a favourite of his and he regales against the misuse of TV that is daytime television.  Much is said about the vacuity of modern day life as he is fêted as a superstar.

This in itself would make for a light and fluffy read,  However, in the second half, a darker undercurrent asserts itself.  The C21st Berliners may be blind to this but it is the real Hitler at work.  Back in the day he was completely underestimated, viewed as a funny, little man.  Nevertheless Hitler was cunning with a charm that won people over. Those patterns begin to re-establish themselves in the final pages of the novel and that is disconcerting.   I don’t think Vermes is saying that history could repeat itself but who knows?  There are lessons we never seem to learn.  He is on record as saying that Hitler didn’t do it alone and he wants the ordinary man, who made the Third Reich possible, to examine himself and ask how he would behave when given the choice of a strong, charismatic leader.

Crazy Tales of Blood and Guts – Teresa Solana 45stars.GIF
Translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush

Solana on KindleTalking of the dark side, I have crossed over.  I never thought that the Kindle would be welcomed into this house, but needs must.  Time is doing what time does best, unfortunately, and heavy suitcases are becoming problematic.  I need to lighten my luggage when travelling this summer, and so it’s time to bite the bullet.  I thought I’d start with a collection of short stories from one of my completist authors. Happy to report that the experiment was a complete success!

Crazy Tales of Blood and Guts is a collection of 5 satirical short stories.  The pretensions of the art world are lambasted in Still Life No. 41 when what is take to be a life-size statue turns out to be something much more morbid. A Stitch in Time demonstrates that underestimating the elderly can be fatal. The restrained vampire (“I’ve not sucked the blood of young girls for years because I accept it’s not the done thing.  It’s a barbaric custom.“) at the centre of A Thought that Counts is quite a likeable fellow until he makes a spectacularly bad judgment call.  In The First (Pre) Historic Serial Killer , Mycroft, the cleverest troglodyte ever finds detective work a bit of a challenge, but in the process of establishing motive solves “three murders, and in one fell swoop invented prophecies, gods and oneiromancy”.  Flushed with success, he considers inventing psychoanalysis as well!  The final story, my favourite, is undoubtedly the most macabre. A pathologist becomes obsessed with internal beauty.  Performing, at her behest, a autopsy on the ugliest woman he has ever encountered (She was short and stout and her legs were too short and her torso was too long.  … As for her facial features, she hadn’t been let off lightly there either.  Flabby cheeks, bulbous nose, bulging eyes and greasy spotty skin ….), he discovers her organs to be of such sublime extraordinary beauty that he was continually forced to catch his breath. It is a contradiction he cannot resolve and over the following months he becomes obsessed with finding the perfect organs again .. until one night a pretty nurse from pediatrics finds herself cast in the title role of The Offering ….

I loved these stories.  They’re clever, witty and satirical by turns, inhabited by diverse voices, and I could happily have read a collection twice as long – even on the Kindle.  I hope more Solana is translated soon.  I only have one more novel of hers to read which I’m saving until something else is published.  I just can’t bear the idea of having no new Solana to look forward to.

The first quarter of 2015 is almost over and the campaign to remove 500 books from my premises (without adding another 500) is ongoing.

So far this year I have donated 106 books to the library and sold a further 18.

Incoming: 25 review copies. Purchases? Therein lies a tale …

Participation in Eva’s #tbr20 (read 20 books before purchasing another one) got the year off to an excellent start. Purists didn’t count library or review books. I did because I was working to a deadline – I wanted to complete in time for the release of the new Ishiguro. As a result, I finished the beauties below on March 2nd.


I was elated. And I hadn’t bought a book for two months! A-mazing!

During the victory parade, however,  the troops of General Let’s-sabotage-the-bibliophile slipped in and out of the castle library walls, leaving behind a trojan horse.  Hidden within my book sale money, the unspent book budget for January and February and, as I now know, the budget for March, April and May! My strategy had been not to spend any of this until my London city break ….

My spectacularly failed strategy.

I may live 26 miles from the nearest bookshop but I’m only ever 5 seconds away from a buy-with-1-click button.  The Ishiguro was the crack in the dam. You know want happened next, and it happened again when the AyeWrite program was published, and again when the Bailey’s and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlists were published. The trip to London followed that with visits to Watermark Books at King’s Cross, Hatchard’s at St Pancreas and Foyles on Charing Cross Road.

The result?


So last week I started #tbr20 round two and retreated to work out an effective rearguard action.  (To be continued …)

I decided long before I opened the first page of Ishiguro’s latest, that I would not be reviewing it. The blogosphere will be awash with reviews I decided. Instead would tweet my reactions and then consolidate the tweets to tell the story. Let us begin ….

And there you have it. An experiment that didn’t work too well, because after a first chapter of much promise, I didn’t want my next tweet to be “Oh dear.  It’s gone off the boil.” 

And the temperature never rose again.  I had intended to devour the book in two sittings in time for Ishiguro’s Edinburgh event, but couldn’t summon up the enthusiasm. I made it to page 148, by which time Ishiguro’s job was to persuade me to finish…

The blogosphere has been awash with details of Ishiguro’s very comprehensive book tour and insights into the book.  So I’ll just mention a few points I’ve not seen mentioned elsewhere.

1) This was an Edinburgh Book Festival event.  The EIBF in March? Yes, indeed. Increased funding from a variety of sources means that there will be events throughout the year, not just during August.  This can only be a good thing.

2) The event was held in the Lyceum – my favourite theatre – though not ideal for audience questions when the audience was seated on 3 levels and there were ongoing issues with microphones.

3) Who knew that Ishiguro spent his gap year working as a grouse beater at Balmoral?  There is no better way to see the moors, he said.  You’re off the tracks and must not break formation.  If you meet a bush, you must go through it.  if you meet a bog, you must wade through it.  (Hence, the splendid evocations of Dark Age British landscapes, I suppose.)

4) On the somewhat cool reactions to The Buried Giant: I’m doing something different.  Critical reaction has always been the same, whenever I change direction.  Critics didn’t like me not being a Japanese writer when I published the quinessentially English The Remains of the Day.

5I never for one moment anticipated the furore about the fantastical elements in The Buried Giant.  When I’m writing, I’m so immersed in driving forward the plot (his actual word was desperate), that I’ll grab onto any device that helps me do that.

(Editor’s note: This is not convincing me to read further. I’m not a fan of the ageing Sir Gawain and the geriatric dragon …)

6) Audience question: Is Edwin a terrorist in training?  Answer: I wouldn’t say that but he is about to be radicalised. 

(Editor’s note: Now we’re getting somewhere …)

And indeed we were.  Ishiguro explained that the neutral non-realistic dark age setting allowed him to explore the theme of genocide without the story getting hung up on historical particulars. This is a land where things best forgotten remain that way.  Both in the collective consciousness and in the more intimate memory of a long marriage.

This was the point that persuaded me to read on and complete the novel.  Yes, I can see the advantages of the defamiliarisation and the threats that appear when difficult memories begin to emerge from the mists, but I do wish the details weren’t so opaque. Everything is symbolic or should that be allegorical? In which case what’s the purpose behind confiscating Axl and Beatrice’s candle in chapter 1? Or the meaning of the mysterious boat ride in the final chapter? As you can see, I had problems from beginning to end.  Guaranteed not to appear on my best of 2015 list.




Let’s start with a confession. I wasn’t a fan of Brecht when I was studying for my German degree and never in a million years thought I would revisit.  Well, it’s only been 35 years and the impetus was the recent production at the Lyceum in Edinburgh.    I started going to the theatre regularly a couple of years ago, when I branched out from the Book Festival and added the Edinburgh Fringe to my itinerary. Unsurprisingly I head to anything with German Literature connections and have thus far been treated to Kleist’s Penthesilea (completely bonkers, but it’s amazing what can be achieved in a tiny hotel room with a humungous piece of paper), Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther (in German, with English subtitles) presented as a soliloquy, actor staring for long periods of time at a balloon; Hesse’s Siddhartha (Italian opera, with English subtitles), given full-scale West End musical treatment.  As a result, I was looking forward to Brecht’s play, even though no mark remained from my multiple readings many moons ago.

First though I decided to reread. It didn’t take long for my old boredoms to resurface. The commmunist/socialist arguments in the prologue when land is confiscated to form an agricultural commune because the land will be better cared for that way are yawnswothy because historical hindsight shows how that didn’t pan out.  The principle is illustrated in the remaining scenes during a time of revolution and civil war when the governor’s abandoned child is saved from certain death by the selfless actions of a servant girl.  The revolution fails, however, and two year’s later the child’s mother tries to reclaim the child.  Who is the real mother?  That is for judge Azdak to decide ….

This is a dramatic story of epic proportions. How do you go about staging events that span two years? Brecht resolves this through the use of a narrator to explain background and events between scenes.  Reading the play this amounts to tell not show and is, even if this is acknowledged as one of the greatest 20th century plays, boring.  

But then the Causcasian Chalk Circle is not meant to be read.  The story is meant to be told, the events are meant to be watched and the narrator, in the form of a funky hair-cut flicking, electric guitar wielding, singing superstar is a transformative power.  The first riffs rang out, the audience woke up and for the next two-and-a-half hours never blinked!

Photo credit – Theatre Scotland


The narrator is ably “supported” by a large cast of actor musicians, many of whom take on multiple roles in both genders as the play has an even larger number of characters.  But if the narrator is the superstar, the puppeteer is the megastar.  During the course of events, little Michael, the child abandoned in favour of his mother’s dresses (!), grows from a babe in arms to a mischievous toddler. This transition is effected by a series of puppets, manipulated by a man dressed in black, who soon becomes invisible.  The child becomes surprisingly real and the bond between him and his “adoptive” mother tangible.  The shock at the causcasian chalk circle trial, when the child really could have been ripped in two, was palpable and (my) tears were shed when justice was done.

Photo Credit – Alan McCredie

This was a highlight performance for me. The modern dress emphasising the continued relevance of the issues raised. (The chaos of war, the plight of refugees ..,) I’ll be keeping Brecht’s text to reread and relive it.  The run at the Lyceum ends this Saturday (14th March).  If you’re in Edinburgh or the vicinity and have the chance of a ticket, take it.  Not to be missed.

 Telegraph review

Making Michael – DNA Puppetry


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