[REVIEW] Suddenly Last Summer, ETC, Oxford Playhouse

Here is my mini review of Suddenly Last Summer: Mary Higgins should be booked in to play Hecuba twice a term until she graduates. Ideally in a newly-discovered translation by Sylvia Plath. She rises with red hair and eats men like air as the disturbed Catherine in this disorientatingly ambitious version of Williams’s Dead Gay New Orleans Play. Derek Mitchell plays Violet Venables as a geriatric Blanche du Bois, successfully crossed with the disembodied head of Madame Leota. The results are horribly brilliant.

The experimental score is the most ambitious and perhaps least successful bit of the production, stuck in an aural aesthetic standoff between Teutonic techno and Lana del Rey. The onstage singer and guitarist (Georgia Bruce) is brilliant. Suddenly Last Summer is a one-act (keywords: lobotomy, cannibals), which director Sammy Glover has expanded with movement sequences that initially made me worry she’d have preferred to shoot a music video, but in retrospect illuminated the play.

The supporting cast are strong – especially Ell Potter and Aaron Skates, who as Catherine’s mother and brother make fireworks out of the first and second prizes in the Tennessee Williams Most Thankless Supporting Role competition. Skates’s Louisiana accent is particularly spot on (I say this with all the authority of someone who’s spent precisely a week in New Orleans and bored people with the Instagrams ever since. ‘Ah, yes, Garden District,’ I smugged during the performance, in a manner more usually seen by people cleverness-signalling at Jacobean comedies).

But, yes. Mary Higgins and Derek Mitchell. Casting Mitchell as Violet may have been ‘controversial’, but as it turns out, nobody could better depict that she-pander (nails grappling for purchase on your forearm, wig bobbing incessantly) than a second-year undergraduate. As for Higgins, Tennessee Williams only wrote two female characters (groteseque whore/saviour-wife), and sensibly Higgins and Glover have conspired that the former shouldn’t play either. As I said – Hecuba. It’s ages til finals.

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Shakespeare’s Women and the Fin de Siècle

I’m delighted to say that as well as being published in the UK and the USA by Oxford University Press, my monograph Shakespeare’s Women and the Fin de Siècle is now also available to subscribers via Oxford Scholarship Online.

15326327_10101851765544169_3667282702916612841_nThe book came out in the UK on 1st December (what, I’m excellent at timely self-promotion) and even ended up in the window of the OUP Bookshop on Oxford High Street! It’s been spotted at MLA, launched in Magdalen (quote of the evening: “Now I’ve bought it, and, more to the point, you’ve seen me do it”).

I’ve got discount codes for people who’d like to buy the book – just comment below!

Thanks to everyone who helped bring the book into print – I learned a lot from the experience, and am now busy writing the second one.

[EXHIBITION & TALK] Magdalen’s Wilde

wilde-poster-1-768x1086The current Old Library exhibition at Magdalen is on Oscar Wilde – I curated it, alongside our former Fellow Librarian Christine Ferdinand. The exhibition is open to the public on 15, 22 and 29 November, and at other times by appointment (contact library@magd.ox.ac.uk ). Displaying the very best of Magdalen’s holdings on one of our most famous alumni, the exhibition includes a little-known MS of Lady Windermere’s Fan, an array of first editions (and pirated editions!) from the UK and Europe, odd appropriations, Cecil Beaton costume designs, theatre programmes, salacious details from the trials, and (slightly heartbreaking) original letters.

On 21 November at 5.30 p.m. I’m giving a talk to accompany the exhibition, followed by a reception and viewing of the exhibition. To attend the talk, please email library@magd.ox.ac.uk – it’d be wonderful to see you there. Pia de Richemont reviewed the exhibition for Oscholars over the summer: read her review here.

P.S. this is a (reasonably) rare opportunity to get inside Magdalen’s beautiful Old Library and see the petrified wig. To give you an idea, it’s the central image in my blog header (if you’re reading this on RSS, click here).

Oxford: Refugees Are Welcome Here!

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This afternoon, about 2,000 people gathered by Oxford University’s Sheldonian building for a peaceful demonstration in support of the Syrian refugees, showing that refugees are welcome in Oxford.

The demonstration was chaired by Mark Lynas. A speaker from Oxfam, Dr Hojjat Ramzy of the Oxford Islamic Information Centre, Asylum Welcome, Emmaus Oxford and other charities spoke, as well as current and former asylum seekers from Syria, Eritrea and Afghanistan. The head of Oxford City Council confirmed that Oxford would be welcoming refugee families, and called on the government to make funds available to expedite the process.

A speaker from UNISON called attention to the need to force the government to build more houses and abandon the racist policies which all parties espoused in the run-up to the last IMG_3294general election, before publicising the national day of action next Saturday. The author Mark Haddon called on Britain to “be more German”, after crowds in Munich applauded refugees arriving at their railway station.

If you want to help the refugees – including those already in the UK, who are not allowed either to work or claim benefits – the consensus among the charities was that there are three preferred things to donate at this stage:

ACCOMMODATION, either as a host to Syrian refugees or as a foster parent to unaccomIMG_3303panied refugee children. A representative from the charity Homes For Good spoke about how his organisation is enabling people to become foster parents to Syrian refugee children who will shortly arrive in this country. For more information, go here. If you could offer a spare bedroom to an adult refugee or a refugee family, Oxford City of Sanctuary wants to hear from you.

MONEY. Donating goods is excellent but, like all the major charities campaigning for financial aid (MSF | Red Cross | Save The Children | Oxfam etc.), Emmaus Oxford is requesting cash donations so they can bulk-buy goods to take to Calais at the end of this month. Asylum Welcome, who run all kinds of schemes in Oxford from English lessons to youth clubs, are also desperately in need of funds.

SKILLS. If you can teach English or translate, both the Oxford Syrian Refugee Helpline and Oxfordshire’s Asylum Welcome need your help. It seems to me that every other Oxford resident has a TEFL certificate mouldering or sparkling away in their CV – stronger English language skills make negotiating life as a refugee in the UK easier and less daunting, helping families integrate and access the resources they need. Could you give a couple of free lessons a week?

Support Syrian refugees: a follow-up

This post is in addition to yesterday’s post about how to help the Syrian refugees at Calais by donating items in Oxford. Here are some more resources and information about ways to help, including a few more regional links:

  • This Amazon wishlist helps you buy items specifically requested by those working with refugee groups. This crowdfunding account raises money for those in ‘The Jungle’, the Calais refugee camp.
  • The big charities are also soliciting donations – try MSF, who are doing migrant search and rescue in the Mediterranean sea, Save The Children, who are campaigning for the children of Syria, or the British Red Cross. You can donate at any of their websites.
  • By the end of September, there will be over 26,000 unaccompanied children in European refugee camps. This petition urges David Cameron to allow 3,000 of them (number suggested by Save The Children) to be fostered in the UK, as Jewish children were following the Kindertransport before World War II.
  • Warwickshire residents (and presumably also Oxford residents) can donate to Emmaus Oxford, who are leading a donation trip to refugees at Calais at the end of September, and they’re seeking the following items: trainers/outdoor shoes, non-perishable food, cooking equiptment, waterproof coats, tents, sleeping bags, torches/solar lights, kindling, underwear, roll-up mats, sanitary and hygiene products, water containers, bicycles. Email sandychamberlain [at] hotmail [dot] co [dot] uk for more information.
  • Glasgow residents can donate clothes and other items here.
  • Folkestone United are collecting items for Calais from the local area, as well as donations.
  • Attend and donate money at a solidarity event showing that refugees are welcome in your city – there’s one this Sunday in Oxford‘s city centre. On 12 September, there will be a London Day of Action for Refugees. Similar organising meetings are also being held in other cities, including Norwich.
  • Keep supporting local outposts of UK charities. I’ve seen complaints and concerns that mass donations to refugee charities will take away from UK charities helping British people. This is a very difficult time of year for Brits on low incomes: the summer holidays have meant an income gap as free school meals became unavailable, and the early cold weather is bringing the “food or fuel” question forward early. However, there are three really important points to make here!
  1. The refugees need specific items like men’s clothes, kitchen equiptment and tarpaulins. If you don’t have these, why not buy them from charity shops and donate them? Double win!
  2. I’ve seen a lot of people asking how to donate things that certain groups like CalAid don’t currently need, like baby wipes, nappies and tampons. This is a really good idea! Don’t put these back in the cupboard, get in touch with your local food bank, women’s refuge or homeless shelter! Oxford Baby Baskets are making up packs for new mums and mums-to-be in Oxford, including refugees.
  3. Lots of Syrian refugees will shortly be British residents (thank God). And they’re going to need our charity shops, food banks, shelters and drop-in centres to be in fighting form, not least because – let’s face it – the government strategy for helping people once they arrive is probably going to be abysmal. Supporting your local charity shop, food bank or shelter is a way to support refugees (and always has been).

If you have other links about drop-off points for donations to help the Syrian refugees, charities taking aid to Syrian refugees, or events along the lines of Refugees Welcome, please post them here – and share this post, if you can!

[TALK]: Lady Dervorguilla Seminar Series / Black History & Ira Aldridge

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Here is the swanky and over-generous flier for my next talk. When your eyebrows have returned to a normal altitude, I hope you’ll join me in agreeing that “Lady Dervorguilla” could be equally a flesh-eating pot plant and the greatest, oldest peer the House of Lords has ever seen. Instead, she was Dervorguilla of Galloway, the original Balliol woman, seen inset looking judgmental in a deep red gown. Many thanks to Balliol MCR for inviting me a couple of months back, and if you’d like to come along, see the Facebook event for details. You’ll hear more about…

In 1833, Ira Aldridge was the first black actor to play Othello in Britain, just as Britain was debating the abolition of slavery in its colonies. In 2012, Lolita Chakrabarti’s award-winning Red Velvet rediscovered Aldridge’s theatrical practice and extraordinary life. Dr. Sophie Duncan, historical advisor on the original production, talks about Aldridge’s life, rehabilitation, and the “progressive” Black history of the play, as well as offering advice on combining a career in academia and theatre.

NB: the flier neglects to mention the wine reception, surely the most important aspect of the evening.

Round-up: Ibsen, casting, abseil

I’ve been working with the New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme on Abbey Wright’s forthcoming production of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts. At one point, one of the actors thanked me for “all my work” with them. Now, obviously I used “work” twice in that sentence, but a better definition for this part of my job would encompass “playing around in a rehearsal room whilst simultaneously making my research do something practical and seeing amazing characters come alive in front of my face” (this is, for me, the greatest joy and secret of directing or dramaturging plays: people voluntarily act out your favourite plays for you, in front of you, in ways influenced by your suggestions and wishes), rather than anything suggestive of painful industry or anxious effort. In addition to knowing the texts with a terrifying and hungry accuracy, actors routinely and almost upsettingly ask the best questions. This is true whenever I get into a rehearsal room. Generally these questions nag me forever. Usually, answering them (when I can) exposes something fascinating, offensive or just plain weird about the way theatre works and has worked. Days spent in theatres are my best professional days. I can’t wait to see Ghosts in action.

I’m also researching for my new project at Magdalen College’s Calleva Centre. At the moment, I’m hugely interested in (and reading everything possible about) casting in theatre – especially Shakespeare. The above trip to the New Vic was very helpful, since (PLOT TWIST) actors have quite a lot to say about the casting process (rather more, in fact, than existing scholarship). So far, I’ve been reading lots about colour-blind casting, gender-blind casting, and disability-conscious casting (in order of volume). I’m definitely looking for more actors, directors, and (above all) casting directors to discuss this with. 

I have moved into my new office. It is up a lot of stairs. I am working to publicise a charity abseil (more on that soon). That will involve a lot of stars too.