The Handmaid’s Tale

Many years ago I read Margaret Atwood’s book “The Handmaid’s Tale”. No matter what Atwood calls it, I remember it being a very good work of science fiction (Atwood says it’s speculative fiction, her dismissal of science fiction as just “monsters and space ships” is ignorant and wrong). That was, however, many years ago. While I remember the broad outline of the plot and the themes explored, I don’t remember much of the detail.

Last night I went to see the English National Opera’s version. From what I remember it stuck to the plot fairly well but I can’t tell what details were left out – not that it matters, the necessarily stripped down libretto covers everything that needs covering. The book ends with the revelation that it has been pieced together from cassette tapes left by a Handmaid and that the dystopian Republic of Gilead is now just an object of historical study. This is extended in the opera with an expository prelude from a professor of history which is, I think, necessary so that those unfamiliar with the book could understand what is going on. Unfortunately this isn’t just left as a prelude, it frames the entire production, with more exposition by the professor which comes right after the highly emotionally charged and ambiguous ending of the second act. That epilogue is frankly a couple of minutes of let-down.

Kate Lindsey (as Offred) does a very good job in what must be an extremely demanding role, on stage practically full-time, and the supporting cast and the technical departments all do exactly what is needed and no more. Poul Ruders’s score complements the libretto perfectly, with some unusual instrumentation but without disappearing up its arse into atonality like some other modern composers do. My only quibble is that The Wall – practically the only major piece of scenery, and it appears briefly several times – was, in the book, a place where enemies of the state were hanged and left to rot. It is turned into a sentimental wall of remembrance. Perhaps it was thought that the audience would react poorly to a line of hanging corpses, but that seems an odd decision to make in a production were we see not just hanged corpses but the very act of execution by hanging, execution by beating, and repeated rapes.

Those two very minor issues aside, it was a stunning production. As I write this there are three more performances left in its short run, and at least some cheap tickets available if you don’t mind being up in the gods.

Singin’ In The Rain

Not Gene Kelly

Almost a year ago I wrote about how I was supposed to have seen this on stage but it got cancelled, and so I watched the film instead.

Well, the stage show was rescheduled, that rescheduled performance was – mirabile dictu! – not cancelled (another show I’ve got tickets for at Sadler’s Wells has been re-scheduled twice now), and I saw it on Saturday. The singing and dancing was not quite up to the standard of the original – how could it be? Gene Kelly has been busy with another engagement for over 20 years, and of course in a live show everything has to be done in one take so of necessity some of the more spectacular numbers have to be tamed down a bit. But even so, it was fun. The title piece was spectacular.

It’s on for a few more weeks at Sadler’s Wells and tickets are still available. I recommend avoiding the front few rows in the stalls unless you want a good soaking.

Modernist Embroidery

If the Bauhaus did embroidery …

“Dave? Are you feeling alright?” I can hear you all thinking. Yes! Embroidery!

One of the good things about the Pestilence is that vast numbers of lectures went online. London has always had a thriving lecture scene, but actually getting to most of them was always a pain as they weren’t well advertised and were in out-of-the-way places. The Pestilence pushed them online, and because you can’t rely on on-site advertising at cultural venues any more promotion of them has also gone online. The Royal School of Needlework is one of the many institutions that has moved some of its output intended for non-specialists online. Embroidery is well outside my normal range of interests, which tend towards the industrial and scientific, but nevertheless this lecture caught my eye when it was advertised (alongside talks on subjects such as “Regional Museums of Space Exploration in Russia” and “The Strange History of London’s Loos”) in the Ian Visits newsletter, to which all Londoners should subscribe.

The talk “Hand Embroidery in the 20th Century: Modernism in the RSN’s Collection” covered both art embroidery, original work by extremely talented creatives, but also, and more interesting to me, craft embroidery, largely in the form of kits and mass-market printed patterns for people to make up at home. I was mostly interested because home decoration and ordinary peoples’ clothing, how they’re made, marketed and purchased, is a window into real history, into how normal people live and how that changes over time. The sort of history that is far more important than minor details of which aristo scum killed which royal tyrant when. The lecture clearly brought out the rise of the suburban middle class, changing patterns of home ownership, and even teenage music fandom.

Much of the work we were shown, especially from the first half of the 20th century, was not what I would call modernist. The manufacture and marketing of it was modern, but the craft itself was not, being a quite conservative, nostalgic re-re-re-rendering of old themes. Much was “arts & crafts“, a movement that is explicitly anti-modern, although I did note that practically all the work depended heavily on modern industrial chemistry for the mass production of brightly coloured threads! Modernism really first appeared on the fabric in large quantities in the 50s and 60s, with perhaps some fore-shadowing in 1940s austerity. But really, whether the design was modernist isn’t as important as the infrastructure behind it of how designs are promulgated. So you see, this wasn’t so far removed from my normal interests after all.

Transport Archaeology

Yesterday and today I went on tours about abandoned transport infrastructure.

First, yesterday, was one of the London Transport Museum‘s “Hidden London” online tours, of the Kingsway tram tunnel and the nearby Holborn and Aldwych stations. “Hidden London” has been running for several years, until recently as in-person tours of some parts of closed stations. This year they are instead running online tours with slides and videos, mostly about parts of London’s transport history which could not normally be made accessible to the public because they are in poor repair. This particularly applies at Aldwych. Some parts of Aldwych are, in normal times, open for occasional guided tours, but there are parts that those tours don’t cover. The tour I went on, and which I recommend, explores parts of the station which aren’t just not open to the public, they were never opened at all! The station was built on a rather large scale than was ever needed, which became apparent even as it was being built, but construction continued in the hope that the Aldwych branch line would be extended to Waterloo justifying it. That never happened, and so the extra lift shafts and circulating areas have never been used for anything except utility tunnels. The history of the Kingsway tram tunnel was also interesting, in particular how, unlike Aldwych station, it was dramatically under-designed and so needed a rebuild after 20 years to cope with the amount of traffic.

And then today was to the world’s first air traffic control centre and the first purpose-built airport terminal, in Britain’s first international airport: Croydon! I must have driven past the old airport, which closed in the 1950s and has now been mostly built on with a mixture of housing and light industry, thousands of times, and aside from the De Havilland Heron mounted outside the old terminal building there’s no visible sign at all of an airport. It was only quite recently, within the last few months, that I learned that the terminal building was still there, and not just converted into offices, that it is still accessible. The passenger-handling side of the building is very well preserved (the freight part has been converted into offices) and the only significant changes from when it was Britain’s most important airport to today are that the departures board has gone, and there’s no longer a W.H.Smiths in the departure lounge.

Airside doors for arrivals (left) and departures (right); control tower far left

After a brief tour of the passenger-facing side of the building, both inside and out, we went up into the control tower – the first dedicated control tower anywhere in the world, home to the first organised air traffic control, and where the first licensed ATC officers worked – where there is a small museum. The museum is mostly what you would expect at any small airfield museum, although the addition of the ATC section is a nice extra.

The building is open on the first Sunday of every month and staffed by volunteers, all of whom were friendly and knowledgeable. If you’re in the area I recommend a visit.

Dalton E-6B (?) navigational computor

One particular item on display particular grabbed my attention. This “navigational computor” (note the spelling – in the 1930s when these were invented a “computer” was a person who did computations and a “computator” was a mechanical device to aid them. “Computer” only really settled on its modern meaning in the 1940s, so this is quite a revolutionary device for its time, for both its function and its naming!) appears to be (the museum guide for that room didn’t know anything about it) appears to be a Dalton E-6B, a device for quickly working out one’s true heading based upon what direction you’re pointing the aircraft, your air speed, and wind conditions.

Enigma Variations

This evening I watched the Royal Opera House’s 2019 production of the Enigma Variations. I don’t think I’ll ever listen to it the same again.

There’s nothing terribly flashy about it, it’s just a joyful portrait of the characters Elgar portrayed in his music. And it cost only £3. It’s available to stream for the next few weeks and I recommend it.

The Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments

A couple of weeks ago it was the Brighton Early Music Festival. Most years I go to at least a couple of their events, but this year it was online on Youtube. I was especially struck by the Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments‘ talk interspersed with performances on the Trumpet Marine, which is neither a trumpet nor marine. It is a large single-string instrument played with a bow, but instead of the player pressing strings against a fingerboard to change their length and hence change the pitch to anything within its range, they gently touch the string at one of the harmonic nodes, changing the pitch to one of the overtones of the string’s natural pitch. Unfortunately it’s too late for you to watch the whole thing but there is a short clip on BREMF’s Youtube channel that you can see below.

Playing only the harmonics means that not all the notes of the chromatic scale used in the modern west are available, and that some of the available notes are slightly out-of-tune compared to the equal temperament we are used to. The notes available are exactly those available on a natural trumpet without any valves. And the instrument has a timbre somewhere in between that of the violin family and the trumpet family, with some degree of control for the player. This is achieved by having an asymmetric bridge, with one foot held firmly to the body and the other somewhat free to move, where it knocks on the body producing harsher trumpet tones.

Some instruments have sympathetic strings inside the instrument which can be set vibrating along with the main string, and one of the Society’s modern instruments has, experimentally, two main strings – you can see this instrument on the right in the video.

The Society has several recordings available to purchase – none yet featuring the trumpet marine, sadly, but I wait with baited breath for an announcement on their mailing list – which you can preview on Bandcamp with CDs of some of them available on their web site. My copy of “Nine Daies Wonder” arrived in the post this afternoon and is an excellent listen.

Deep Night, Dark Night

The Globe theatre is closed at the moment, but this time of year is Ghost Stories Time, and that sort of story-telling is ideally suited to one man shows, and to the more personal setting of a screen, late in the evening, in bed, instead of a crowded theatre from which you will venture out into the bright lights and bustle of normal life. They have put together a one hour show of three stories, to which you should buy access here.

First, “The Tell-Tale Heart” is a straight telling of Edgar Allan Poe’s work. It serves as a decent introduction to the night, only mildly horrific, and obviously fictitious right from the start. Sami Ibrahim’s “50 Berkeley Square” frames the ghost story in terms of unreliable narrators with incomplete information, making it entirely plausible. It does a fine job of building the suspense up to the big reveal at the end, and is, appropriately for a story about a haunted attic, filmed in the attic high up above the Globe’s main stage, somewhere that the guide (if you go on the theatre tour, which I also recommend) will try to convince you is home to spirits of theatrical superstition.

Finally, Abi Zakarian’s “I Am Karyan Ophidian” is not so much a ghost story as a monster tale, and while the point is made early on about the -ian ending meaning “this is an Armenian name” in what I assume is an attempt at deflection I’m afraid that the name “Ophidian” makes things a bit too obvious. Nevertheless, it works well, and the point that there is depravity in all of us (at least all of us who are interesting) is well made.

The programme has been available online for a couple of days, and will be until the end of Saturday. I recommend it to you all.

In the Market for Love (Mesdames de la Halle)

In a normal year I go to the opera four or five times, usually to the English National Opera. This year … well, I had tickets for a couple of shows but they both got cancelled because of the Lurgi, and there’s no sign of either the ENO or the Royal Opera restarting any time soon. Even though theatres are allowed to re-open – and some have done so – large productions require lots of rehearsal time for both performers and technical crew, which hasn’t been possible for months, and large productions are also expensive to put on so need large audiences, which just isn’t possible. The shows I’ve been to since the theatres reopened have all been limited to no more than a quarter of normal capacity.

But yesterday I went to Glyndebourne! In the Market for Love is a new production, based on a new translation of Offenbach’s “Mesdames de la Halle”, a short (only a smidge over an hour) comic opera. Being short it requires less rehearsal, and it has a small cast – seven significant roles, plus a couple of minor ones and a half-dozen in the chorus, compared to the 40+ on stage in typical larger operas. All of that makes it cheap to put on, and they saved more money by mostly re-using set, props and costumes from other shows.

The whole production was typical Offenbach – light music, catchy tunes, a bit of slapstick – all done to Glyndebourne’s usual high standard, and great fun. As I write this some tickets are still available, and I recommend a trip.

Singin’ In The Rain

To the BFI this afternoon for a bit of culture. I was supposed to have seen a stage version of this at Sadler’s Wells last month, but the Pestilence has seen that postponed until September next year. I have, of course, seen it before, but yeeeears ago, and never actually in a cinema, so when I saw that it was on I had to go.

It is of course a wonderful, joyful film. And of course I couldn’t help but think about how I would have edited it differently. There’s an odd shot right at the start of Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor together in the classic rainstorm scene, which is also present in the trailer, but in the film as it was released that is a Kelly solo number. Then I would have cut a few little scenes in the finale too – Jean Hagen’s explanation of how evil her character is is unnecessary for the denouement in which her character being overdubbed in the mise en abyme is revealed. She has already made herself thoroughly hateable by that point without the Baddie Monologue.

Tantra: enlightenment to revolution

Some god, getting jiggy
Some god, getting jiggy, with skulls

This show opened a few days ago at the British Museum. In normal times I tend to go to their shows during the middle of the run, because the start is always crowded with luvvies (and tourists) and the end crowded with people who’ve been putting a trip off for ages, thinking “I can go later” (and tourists). In the middle of a run it’s only crowded with tourists. But things being what they are the museum are allowing far fewer people in at once, which I was sure would make for a much more pleasant experience even at the start of the run. And I was right. There’s little waiting for other people to get out of the way so you can examine a piece, and no oiks jostling to peer over your shoulder.

Some hippy, getting jiggy
Some hippy, getting jiggy, without skulls

The curators have done a good job of explaining the roots of Tantra as transgressive acts of exploration beyond the boundaries of societal norms – not just weird sex – and its transformation into mainstream religion, into politics, and into Western hippy new age bollocks that will smash capitalism. And I did get a distinct sense of sneering at the Western hippy new age bollocks from the curators, who clearly felt that they should show those modern takes on the subject only for the sake of completeness and despite their intellectual shallowness.

Mind you, I am always pleased to see the museum break out some of their prints by Hapshash and the Coloured Coat!