Review: National Theatre Live – ‘Skylight’

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Where else can you see a theatrical masterpiece for £12.50?

The National Theatre have, once again, opened up their performances to cinema screens across the country, this time for a live screening of ‘Skylight’, starring Carey Mulligan, Bill Nighy and Matthew Beard.

Largely a two-man performance, David Hare’s play is essentially an extended conversation between ex-lovers and the child in the middle, and it’s fascinating that a conversation can be so powerful and so captivating. Having played the role eighteen years previously, Bill Nighy was practically perfection; his comic timing and ability to handle the transition between smooth businessman to heartbroken wreck was uncanny, and something I don’t think many actors could handle with such conviction. Yes, his wisecracking was poking fun at Mulligan’s Keira, but there was never a doubt that something bigger was working in the background. At every moment, you could see Nighy’s Tom fighting his psychological pain, refusing to acknowledge its existence until it was too late.

Mulligan was equally heartbreaking; despite a clear age difference (which initially meant I couldn’t place them together physically), she pulled off that protective love that her character had felt for Tom, and her ability to convincingly dissolve into tears on cue made her performance all the more heart-wrenching to watch. My favourite thing about Keira as a character was her convictions; in fact, the highlight of the play for me was in the second half, where Keira rants about how the corruption of the world reflects our inability to act, to do instead of to judge. Her ending words within her rant, accusing journalists and governments of judging without trying to do the work of a social worker, teacher etc. resonated with the audience both in and outside of the theatre, leading to well deserved applause after she’d finished. Perhaps this is the beauty of the play; yes ultimately it may be about broken love, but the political resonance that has (perhaps worryingly) stood the test of time makes it inhabit your core values and question them throughout the performance and long afterwards.

As for the cinema experience, don’t think that it detracts from the viewing pleasure; in fact, you wouldn’t notice all the nuances and subtleties without it. There was a moment where Tom tried to grasp Keira’s finger when she sat by him, and I’m fairly confident in thinking you might not have noticed this small action in the dress circle of a theatre, let alone in a restricted view seat. Perhaps the only criticism of this medium is that sometimes the camera is misplaced; Keira’s vicious throwing of the cutlery draw was largely missed because the camera was on Tom after he had slipped up and said the words that pushed her over the edge. But when you see how many people turn up to these events, and that it is reaching thousands across the country in one night, is it a method that can be knocked if it sustains the glory of British theatre? Our theatre was filled with a mix of people, and it struck me that the elderly members of our audience who had come together would not be able to travel to London easily, yet here they had the opportunity to be involved in something utterly breathtaking. The theatre become a global experience, and it was fabulous.

‘Skylight’ is only one of the upcoming NT Live productions; ‘Medea’, ‘Frankenstein’ (Encore), ‘The Curious Incident…’ and many more productions are heading to cinema screens soon, and I urge people to support this venture and enjoy the theatre as you never have before.

Carnegie Nominee Review: ‘The Bunker Diary’ by Kevin Brooks

Ever read ‘Room’? Now imagine four more people in that room, and that instead of sex and control, the person just wants to play a game. There you have ‘The Bunker Diary’. 

16 year old Linus Weems is caught unawares by a man pretending to be blind; after being drugged and bundled into a van, Linus wakes to a modernised war bunker, and is soon joined by a nine year old girl, then four adults later on. If they ask for food, it might arrive; if they try to outwit their captor, punishments ensue. 

This is one of those books that is as captivating as it is repellant. You finish and put it as far away from you as possible, but can’t stop thinking about the complex yet futile psychopathic motives underlying Linus’ situation. The only confirmation that we have within this book is that there’s a man, and he is in full control of every possibility – we don’t know his name, his motivation, anything. And that’s what’s scariest; facing the unknown. The lift is a brilliant symbol of this; it will follow the time schedule, but what it contains is a mystery – it could literally be the difference between life and death. It’s one of those horrific voyeuristic situations; it gets to a stage where you are compelled to read because you’re safe and it couldn’t possibly reach you, it’s almost a cheap thrill to gain an insight into this psychopathic situation. 

The most fascinating thing, as normally is in these types of novels, is the character relationships. You get your six stereotypes: innocence, bravery, selfishness, selflessness, recklessness, foolishness. None of these fit together properly, and its the clashes that are captivating to watch unfold. You know who the bad guy is and who is working for the good of the group, and their interactions have you picking sides and considering what ethics and morality are within such extremities. 

The only dubious thing about this book is it’s classification as young adult, and indeed its participation within the Carnegie award – ranging from offensive language to barbaric cruelties, this book is heavy-going, and only our sixteen year old narrator mediates the information in a way that might be thought-provoking for older teens. The plot demands frankness and we get it, but sometimes this is perhaps too stark a reality for younger teenage readers. 

But then, shouldn’t our own concepts of morality be challenged and tested? Despite audience qualms, this is a thoroughly interesting book and shows a unique skill in making the mundane nature of Linus’ imprisonment and a lack of motivational understanding and making it into something that mystifies and horrifies in equal measure. 

 

Carnegie Nominee: ‘Rooftoppers’ by Katherine Rundell

Having already won and been shortlisted for various awards, I was expecting ‘Rooftoppers’ to be gripping and heartening, and I wasn’t disappointed. 

The story of orphan Sophie and her nearly-adopted father figure Charles Maxim was incredibly heartwarming. A man who would encourage his child’s possibles to the ends of the world (or Paris, in literal terms), and a girl without prejudice or corruption leading a search for her heart’s desire, both wrapped up in a tale of adventure and exploration. Compared to the other Carnegie nominess this is (thankfully and wonderfully) light-hearted, aiming to lift spirits to the rooftops and show that anything is possible with a little dreaming and a lot of hard work (and, of course, fabulous fun along the way). Yes, the plot is stretched and implausible, but isn’t this the point of the book? To stop us from believing in the logical and learn to imagine beyond our expectations? As Charles says at one points, adults can be terribly afflicted with a need to only believe in what is in front of them, and that is a tragic hinderance in our ability to reach our desires. 

 

I think my favourite aspect of this tale is Charles, the adult that I’m fairly sure could never exist but everyone should want him to. He indulges Sophie in the best possible way, not raising a brat as one would expect, but a child who sees beyond the limitations of senseless arbitrary rules and instead views the world with an intense amount of compassion and love. He ranks amongst the top fathers within literature who offer emotional strength and wisdom without preaching or condescension. 

 

The only thing I found a little grating in this (and it was marginally so) was the scene with the railway children. In one sense I understood it perhaps showed passion and unity in the face of oppression, in a more intense way than Sophie’s opposition to the repressed knowledge of the police, and it fleshed out Matteo’s troubled and fascinating character by adding depth to the notion of him being a survivor, but it also seemed slightly senseless in its violence. This is me being very picky though in the sense of fairness to the other Carnegie reviews, and it really didn’t detract from the book at all, it is perhaps just a personal reaction to a change in the positive adventurous nature of the book. The scene was concise, Rundell crafted it only to serve the aforementioned purposes and therefore did not draw it out, which is to her credit. 

 

And the ending…well, I won’t spoil it for you, but it serves as a reminder of the beauty of art, life and love in a world that can sometimes be troubled and difficult, reminding us that to pursue a possibility is always a good thing regardless of the outcome. 

Why is ‘Game of Thrones’ so compelling to watch?

So after a week in (literally, for once!) sunny Wales, I came home to catch up on the TV show of the moment, ‘Game of Thrones’. I’ve read up to book five, so I knew what I was coming home to, and I couldn’t bear the thought of it. My dread was more than justified; Ellaria Sand’s face captured it all, as the brutal actions leapt from page to screen in the most horrifying manner, seeing the end of yet another favourite character (mental note: as soon as you like a character, you’ve essentially signed their death warrant).

This is a world where our heroes and loved ones are torn apart and what we deem ‘evil’ gets to triumph. King’s Langing saw off the imagined hero of our tale, the Red Wedding saw the noblest family eradicated, the purple wedding nearly brought us justice but then fan-favourite Tyrion become endangered int he process…I could go on.

So why do we keep watching when we know we’ll be frustrated and unable to sleep afterwards? 

I think it’s because there’s nothing else like it. No matter which good guys have to bite the dust in the name of justice, our major motion pictures and TV series always revert the world to what we think it should be after the mess of battle. Look at the latest Marvel craze; ‘Thor’, ‘Iron Man’, ‘Captain America’, ‘Spiderman’, ‘X Men’…It doesn’t matter what the cost is, because we know the world will be safe at the end (except for that lurking Loki threat, but that proves my point – they won’t kill off everyone’s favourite anti-hero just yet). No one has ever just let the world live out as it should in these kinds of shows; there’s always been an end point of good triumphing, whereas in Westeros it’s not about good or evil, it’s about people acting upon impulses, their wants and needs and desires, rather than the overall cosmic balance of the universe.

As well, characters mean nothing to G R R Martin. Maybe that’s too sweeping, obviously he’s invested in them, but he doesn’t have heroes and villains, he doesn’t have favourites and intended victors, he has people. He writes about their lives and (more often than not) their deaths, acting more as a biographer than the god of his narrative world. Look at how in ‘Lord of the Rings’ only one of the Fellowship is sacrificed despite hourly mortal peril and insanity-inducing rings and wizards with unlimited powers. Even Gandalf can’t stay down when he’s taken, because his narrative function is to see the Fellowship to their end. Martin, however, openly states that Robb Stark cannot avenge his father just because his cause is noble, and practically punishes us for daring to invest in a character (he hears ‘oh that Red Viper guy, he’s cool’ and translates that to ‘Red Viper seems popular, better slaughter him’). Nobody seems destined to get to the Iron Throne and stay there, because it’s a game and they are, by nature, down to luck and chance and choices.

In this sense, it’s also compelling because we have literally no idea what will happen next. Even the Lannisters don’t seem comfortable on the throne, and for those that know what’s next, they should be watching those spikes a bit more carefully. No one seems a likely king or queen, they all have their own campaigns (the Red Woman’s religious trail, Dorne’s vengeance, Daenerys’ slave fixation…), and not one leads directly to Westeros. Even Stannis has abandoned his quest and will end up further north than planned, despite his attempt on King’s Landing. You have to watch because you can’t guess; this isn’t soap opera land where we’ve seen the rising action and denouement a million times.

Yes, G.R.R. Martin has presented us with something unique and breathtaking in it’s sheer brutality. We’ve embraced the horror and the unknown, and are through the looking glass and even those who have read the books are stunned into submission with the twists and changes presented to us (the Night’s King, anyone?). I reiterate, it’s compelling television, which hasn’t been seen before and can never be copied with the same success.

 

Of Mice and School-teachers

Michael Gove has successfully done it again, upset a multitude of teachers by uttering a single sentence (a subject in which he’s well qualified). What I’m not doing is arguing against him as a person right now (I’ll save that for the staffroom). What I want to do is talk about the beauty of the literature he is attempting to wipe from the face of the curriculum. 

1) ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

Not the easiest book to wrap your head around – the child narrator makes meaning obscure, testing your textual analysis and inference skills. But more than this, it’s a haunting novel that reminds us where cultural prejudices have come from, and how lucky we are to have travelled away from that place, if not entirely escaped it. I’m not denying British novels deal with such issues, and that they do it well, but sometimes it’s better to have an experience removed from your own in order to make you evaluate yourself more critically, rather than feeling you are being directly preached at and resentful of being indirectly accused of participating in such prejudices. Tell me the story of Scout Finch and her admirable father does not resonate with us; whether you enjoy the plot or not, it delves into issues at the core of being human, and cannot be underestimated in its value. 

 

2) ‘All My Sons’

Arthur Miller is another victim of the Govian canon. Some of the most spirited discussion in my A Level literature group were over the culpability of Joe, whether he was representative of true evil or just an ignorant man (or whether the two were mutually exclusive). Shakespeare has his merits, Marlowe is indisputably brilliant, Russell a contemporary heartbreaker, but Miller has this way of dealing with historical issues that test our own values, and make us question the arbitrary roles of good and evil. Yes, many texts have the potential to do this, but in terms of delving into performance art and how we interpret what is placed before us Miller is invaluable.

 

3) ‘Of Mice and Men’

A novella that perhaps is divided in reception in classrooms; there will always be those children who find the issues ridiculous, and will giggle at Lennie when you show them the film adaptation, but that has never meant they are incapable of grappling with the fine textual detail presented in this text. In particular, Steinbeck’s language choices allow us to delve into how a text can be so intricate and detailed in such a short space of time, how we can grow to fight a character’s battles in a compact arena, and yes that is directly comparable to the lengthy three-volume Victorian novels that take pleasure in ornate language and still arrive nowhere and abandon their reader on the way. That’s not to say there’s no place for lengthy novels in a school – of course we should stretch and challenge, and I have thoroughly enjoyed a variety of texts published between the 14th to 21st century. But I’m a graduate, I chose to engage with such issues – there needs to be a hook to encourage more people to engage with this material, and why shouldn’t something as simplistic yet complex in matter as ‘Of Mice and Men’ be the way of achieving this? 

 

And where does this leave us in the future? Gatsby will lose his great, a lot of pupils will struggle to overcome their prejudice to Mr Darcy, and lets not forget there are cultures out there that deserve our recognition – should we be swapping our Anne Frank’s for our Captain Scott, just because of where he’s born? Where does this place our ‘Kite Runners’ and our ‘Trials’? And what does this speak to our pupils? That we should take pride in our culture, I cannot disagree with, British literature is some of the finest in the world, and it is not that which I dispute; that we should discount other cultures because they don’t lie within our waters, I whole-heartedly disagree with. The more we can appreciate of literature around the globe, the more rounded our knowledge becomes, and the more appreciative we become of how the world has developed (or not, as the case may be) and see our place within this world more clearly. 

 

It’s a crying shame that one man could reduce childhood experiences this dramatically, and it saddens me that we cannot experience a world of literary pleasure for one person believing in the superiority of one small corner of the world. 

A Twist in the Tale…

“So then the clown said: Why so serious son?!”

 

The crowd were on the edge of their seats, tense with the anticipation of another punch line; success was near at hand, the clinching joke about to be told, Andy Kay’s future as a rising star on the stand-up circuit secured. He could sense the change in atmosphere, detect the difference in taste between ambition and success. And three, two, one…

 

“…so then I realised his wife was his husband!”

 

They couldn’t contain themselves. Three of them were crying, practically sobbing. Andy bowed and left the room promptly – always leave them wanting more. He’d already come up with the headline for the post-show interview outside (‘More than O-Kay!’), and grabbed the proffered plastic beaker of water from the young male before heading towards his fame-clinching interview. Fame was already hard; his head was pounding and his left hand was shaking slightly; adrenaline obviously coursing through his system. He was sweating, but the post show jitters after all that anticipation was clearly normal.

 

“Did you see Jane? I slaughtered them out their tonight!”

 

The woman labelled Jane’s face turned ashen, a small noise escaping her unbidden, eyes intently fixed upon the man’s face.

 

Jane, Sarah, Ellen – names were interchangeable right now. She could be either one or a mixture of the three, as long as she listened and acted accordingly. Just like a real publicist, that’s what Andy wanted.

 

“You remembered to make the call right? To tell them to meet me here instead of me going to them, right? I can’t be waiting too long.”

 

A slow nod, just one. The woman glanced at the male who had handed Andy the beaker of water; the male stood, not knowing what his function was now the beaker was empty. He didn’t look to the right to catch her eye, focusing intently on his lack of purpose and what that meant for his immediate future, his welfare.

 

Andy was pacing like a caged tiger, waiting to pounce on his interviewer, the one who held his notoriety in his hands. Or waiting to be tamed by newfound celebrity, it could go either way he supposed. He knew his moment was coming, and that his decisions had inevitably led to this, and he didn’t mind that: he accepted his fate. The only thing that mattered was that he embraced it fully, and didn’t apologise for following the course of destiny.

 

It was worth it.

 

A screech of tyres – clearly running late and attempting to make up for it, Jane/Sarah/whoever had called over fifteen minutes ago (his chance at fame might have ended in that time), and the twelve-year-old male, her son, had confirmed she’d said what he asked her to, yet still they lingered. Never mind, they’d make up the time. Although they didn’t need to knock so hard on the door, he’d get there in his own time.

 

Andy muttered to himself on the way to the door, drowning out the talking on the other side of the door. “More than O-Kay, or Beyond O-Kay…More than…Beyond…”.

 

Headlines, all headlines, that was all that mattered, regardless of the route taken there.

 

He undid the dead-bolt and the rest was done for him. Door thrown backwards, Andy gracelessly pinned to the ground, the second man practically walking over him to reach the  bright lights beyond. He could hear the woman saying something to the man; Andy could only hope she’d remembered to say the right things. He heard the franctic footsteps – the boy probably running to his mother’s arms, clasping her and unwittingly dying her crisp white blouse with cherry spots.

 

“Mr Kay, you are under arrest for breaking and entering, false imprisonment and grievous bodily harm. You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence. Do you understand?”

“O-Kay officer…”

© Book of Tomorrow

 

Carnegie Award Nominees: ‘Liar and Spy’ by Rebecca Stead

‘Liar and Spy’ revolves around a pre-teen boy struggling with a family move, school bullies and learning how to play by the rules. It becomes a tale of survival and learning which rules should be kept, and which should be entirely your own.

Overall, this is an enjoyable read. Drip fed throughout is the idea that bigger things are happening in Georges (don’t forget the silent ‘s’) life that he is repressing, and that his school issues and his fledgling relationship with the spy upstairs, Safer, are masks for bigger issues he’s avoiding. Georges story is sweet and one that can probably relate to anyone who’s had to deal with a crisis in their life and not known how to tackle it, and perhaps the nature of the issue (without any revelations) shows how human worries can make even the most straightforward issue into a mountain of pressure, and only by learning to scale the mountain do we realise it was never quite as big as we imagined.

Although it is clear throughout that Georges is hiding something, the way in which the final reveal happens is slightly disappointing. There’s a section where Georges talks about images dropping through his head, but it’s more like they’ve been plonked their in the actual revelation of his real story; to be fair, I’m reading this as an adult whereas it’s presumably aimed at pre to early teens, so maybe I’m expecting adult levels of subtlety which just aren’t appropriate for the target audience. Likewise, Safer’s story was just wrapped up in a moment, which (considering the audience) suggests that anyone who cannot just pull themselves together despite crippling issues is being ridiculous, which is clearly untrue. In a way, although the continuing thread throughout this is Georges learning to survive the wide world, the subplots are a little neglected in terms of depth, particular things like overcoming bullies, which is perhaps the most transferable issue regarding real life in this story.

This is a pleasant read and we do share in Georges maturation throughout the novel, which means we feel his upset and his triumph as he learns to navigate a world which we’re still learning to cope with.