Catching up (Part 7)

July 2021

Out West – The Overseas Student – Blue Water and Cold and Fresh – Go, Girl – Lyric Hammersmith – 7th July – *****

Rachel O’Riordan, the AD at the Lyric Hammersmith, might be as good if not better at programming plays as she is directing herself. And she is a mighty fine director. There has been no duds at the LH under her tenure and the current season, once again, is the equal of anything else in London. New plays, updated classics, revivals of lesser known works by contemporary greats, established and upcoming directors, deft casting, everything fits into place. The Tourist can vouch for Frantic Assembly’s Othello currently showing, and the forthcoming hilarious Accidental Death of an Anarchist which he had the very good fortune to catch at its open in Sheffield. And he has high hopes for the Nina Segal adaptation of Brecht’s Good Person of Szechwan also on loan from the City of Steel (pound for pound still the best place to catch theatre outside the Smoke).

Here was another great example. Three top drawer playwrights, Tanika Gupta, Simon Stephens and Roy Williams, all closely associated with the LH, contributed three new monologues, with very different styles , subjects and structures but all, one way or another, confronting questions of race, identity and belonging. Just the ticket for the post pandemic opening,

R O’R shared directing duties with Diane Page the 2021 JMK Award winner 9who then went on to, bravely, stage Athol Fugard’s Statements after an Arrest under the Immorality Act at the Orange Tree, of which more in a future post. Soutra Gilmour designed the common wooden ziggurat set, sound and composition came from Simon Slater and lighting was delivered by Jessica Hung Han Yun (who, at least when it comes to colour play, might just be the hottest designer around right now).

Tanika Gupta’s The Overseas Student reimagines Gandhi’s formative student years in Victorian England with Esh Alladi utterly convincing. Gandhi arrives with his own privilege, dressed for the Englishman part, and taking to English society and women with cheery gusto, even if he can’t find any vegetarian food. But he is still an outsider, the victim of not so casual racism, enduring prolonged spells of loneliness. TG’s script is more description than drama, and just a tad over-extended, but it still captivates. And scrupulously points out just how the economic exploitation of India, which powered Victorian capitalism, was constructed. Fuel for the Mahatma’s emerging consciousness.

Simon Stephens’ Blue Water and Cold and Fresh, was inspired by a series of conversations with collaborator Emmanuella Cole (who, wisely out turns out, jumped ship from the dreadful McKellen/Mathias Hamlet). Tom Mothersdale plays history teacher Jack addressing his late racist father, who, in the chilling denouement, simply could not hide his hatred of Jack’s black partner. As with SS’s Sea Wall monologue there is a degree of circumspect ambiguity at first, which suits TM’s earnest style perfectly, but this allows the tension to build as Jack vents his rage on his father and on his own white male privilege.

BD, who was pleased to come along for the ride, was most taken with Roy Williams’ Go, Girl however, a celebratory story of Black female empowerment and everyday heroism. RW is just really good at writing immediate dialogue for powerful characters. Ayesha Antoine plays Donna, a security guard and proud single Mum, funny, sassy, positive, who picks a beef with a contemporary at school, who is now a famous photographer, who Donna feels misrepresented the day her class met Michele Obama. But just when we look for conflict RW deftly swerves into a feel-good story about Donna and her daughter. It doesn’t all have to be doom and gloom see.

Turner’s Modern World – Tate Britain – 4th July – *****

Unsurprisingly the Tate was able to wheel out the big guns for this blockbuster. After all the great man himself bequeathed his work to the nation (after a bit of a tussle over the will I gather). It remains the biggest ever donation to the National Gallery though most of the permanent displays are now in the Clore Gallery at Tate Britain itself. A few choice loans, (with one notable exception), as well as work from his contemporaries and a detailed timeline, created a completist fever dream of JWMT’s engagement with a changing world. Admittedly the idea, political and technological advances, forged from the white heat of Enlightenment, could be stretched to include just about anything with so prolific, and reclusive, an artist, but, hey it’s Turner, so who cares. There are stark messages, not least in the painting most conspicuous by its absence, but it isn’t always clear if JWMT was driven by political conscience or artistic licence.

Mind you Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On), which was too frail to be transported from Boston Museum of Fine Arts, is horrifying even in reproduction. Slavery might, by 1840, have been, at least in legal theory, abolished, but JWMT still determined to show the evil of the Zong massacre from 60 years earlier. 130 slaves were thrown overboard to save on water. The slave owners made an insurance claim on their “cargo”. The law and a jury found for the slavers though this was overturned by the Court of Appeal and the case, albeit slowly at first, fuelled the abolitionist cause. Of course the irony is that JWMT was himself an investor in a plantation and there is no clear evidence that this was his apology.

Whilst there is much to be gained from understanding the context and content of Turner’s paintings and drawings, which we, BUD, KCK and the SO, very much did, ultimately this bad boy is all about the light. Obviously he had most fun when sea, smoke, spray, clouds, fire, sunrise or sunset were on the agenda, and it is the famous, large, almost abstract, canvases that still wow the most, let us call it the Turner reverie. But the Tourist has a fondness for the more smaller, less Sturm und Drang landscapes, especially those captured in watercolour. Not too many make the cut here given the exhibition’s dubious concept but there was still more than enough of interest.

Thomas Becket: Murder and the Making of a Saint – British Museum – 20th July – ****

Had been keen to get along to this after it re-opened and finally managed to carve out a suitable slot for MS, who else, and I to make the pilgrimage (see what I did there). Our interest was primarily historical and cultural; TB’s murder and its subsequent impact across the Christian world was a big deal, but we were unprepared for the some of the aesthetic beauties revealed herein. 29th December 1170, 4 knights, under instruction from Henry II, raid Canterbury Cathedral and, not entirely intentionally, hack to death its uppity Archbishop incumbent. TB, born to a middling family, became Henry II’s chief confidante after a meteoric rise but, after he was surprisingly installed as England’s chief cleric, they fell out big time. TB sought to assert the primacy of the Church, and its ecclesiastical privileges, over the Crown. Cue exiles, legal wranglings, appeals to Rome, the murder, sainthood, which suited the Pope, just 3 years later, and a martyrdom that resonated loudly across the centuries, through the Reformation, even to this day, despite Henry VIII doing his best to erase TB’s legend. (Note to a future, albeit unlikely, King Henry. Beware a PM called Tom from humble beginnings).

The celebrity cult, for that is what it become as TB was ascribed miraculous, and, for the seller, profitable, powers, was the, often gruesome, inspiration for exquisite stained glass (notably four segments from Canterbury itself), illuminated manuscripts (including the Alfege Psalter from Corpus Christi Cambridge) and, especially, reliquary caskets, which the curators have painstakingly assembled. If you like, and we most certainly do, the Medieval art that preceded the “Renaissance”, you would have loved this. If you are a history buff you would have loved this. If you are interested in how “culture” is formed and spreads, in an era before the printing press, you would have loved this. And if all you care about is picture book stories, including a miraculous knob restoration for one Eilward thanks to TB, and why not, then take your pick.

It’s not like the exhibition rams all this down your throat but in the relatively confined space (one of the reasons I like the exhibitions here), lucid text and multiple visual cues combine making for short and sharp, but nonetheless, deep, learning. The Church came out victorious in this clash of authority with Henry II having to make very public penance but what is also clear is how much the people venerated TB, not just because of the injustice of his gory end, but also as a symbol of their ultimate authority over their rulers. Remember it is pilgrims on the way to TB’s shrine which brought out the best in one G. Chaucer.

As is happens consent and co-operation in rural England in the Late Middle Ages system of justice is MS’s specialism so Dad was able to annoy with a few numpty questions. Hard then to think of a more magical trip out.

Best of the rest

BD was chaperone for the other events of note this month. A couple of exhibitions. And a comedy caper.

Mohamed Bourouissa‘s ungainly titled HARa!!!!!!hAaaRAAAAA!!!!!hHAaA!!! at Goldsmiths CCA (****). M. Bourouissa is an Algerian artist now based in Paris who uses photography, video, sound and other media to create installations which explore power relationships in contemporary societies with more than a nod to art history. Telegraph readers look away now. Plainly a very clever chap he claims his art is not political. Well if so I would love to see what he would get up to if he took an activist turn. By immersing himself in the marginalised communities he describes he makes telling points about capitalism and exchange, history and colonial legacy, identity, race and inequality within the context of arresting ideas and imagery. Horse Day from 2014 tells the story of a Black community in North Philadelphia where M. Bourouissa orchestrated and documented a kind of urban horse fair. The exhibition title references the call drug dealers’ lookouts make in Marseilles to warn of any approaching police presence, which M. Bourouissa has turned into a burst of distorted sound. Temps Mort (2008) tracks the artist’s lyrical smartphone exchanges with an incarcerated friend, Peripheries (2006) recasts Parisian banlieue street life post the 2005 riots into Delacroix-esque posed tableaux, Shoplifters (2014) shows the demeaning photos a NYC shopkeeper took in return for not reporting the subjects to the police . You get the picture. Except you won’t if you never see it.

James Barnor: Accra/London: A Retrospective at the Serpentine Galleries North (****) surveyed the British-Ghanaian’s studio portraiture, photojournalism and editorial commissions over six decades to build a picture of cultural life in Accra and African diaspora London pre and post independence. No little glamour on show as well to set alongside the social commentary.

The Three Musketeers: A Comedy Adventure from physical theatre company Le Navet Bete at the Rose Kingston (***) wasn’t particularly surprising or innovative as the genre goes but if you want something easy on the old noggin with plenty of chuckles if not bellyaches, then this is just the ticket. There is a joy in physical comedy theatre that stems not just from story, performance and spectacle but from seeing how a team of, in this case four, talents combine text, set, props, movement and, notably, timing to create an entertainment. Nick Bunt, Al Dunn and Matt Freeman are the founders of LNB (based in at the Northcott in Exeter – yeh!!) and here they have combined with John Nicholson from peers Peepolykus (The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary). There have a few shows touring as we speak, Treasure Island, Dracula, Extravaganza, so if they come your way don’t hesitate. If only to support those who put more in than they take out, what with all the education outreach work they do, and plainly toil for love and pleasure and not for money.

Almeida Theatre A Midsummer Night's Dream Anton Chekhov Arcola Theatre Arthur Miller Barbican Hall Barbican Theatre Beethoven Ben and Max Ringham Benjamin Britten Bridge Theatre Britten Sinfonia Caryl Churchill Chloe Lamford Dmitry Shostakovich Donmar Warehouse Hampstead Theatre Harold Pinter Theatre Henrik Ibsen Igor Stravinsky Ivo van Hove JS Bach Kings Place Lizzie Clachlan London Symphony Orchestra Lyric Hammersmith Max Pappenheim Mozart National Theatre Nick Hytner Old Vic Orange Tree Theatre Park Theatre Rose Theatre Kingston Royal Court Theatre Royal Festival Hall Southwark Playhouse Soutra Gilmour Steve Reich Tate Britain Tate Modern Thomas Ades Wigmore Hall William Shakespeare Young Vic

Richard III at the Alexandra Park Theatre review ***

Richard III

Headlong, Alexandra Park Theatre, 17th March 2019

Right. Let’s get the gripe out of the way. Maybe in the smaller venues where this production will tour it might creep up to a 4* but Alexandra Park Theatre, whilst an undeniably superb space after the refurbishment, is just a little too cavernous to accommodate the claustrophobic history/tragedy/comedy/thriller/psychodrama/vaudeville which is Dickie 3.

Chiara Stephenson’s Gothic, dark, old-school castle with a twist, namely the introduction of multiple full length, revolving mirrors, together with the lighting of Elliot Griggs, is a winner set-wise. But it utilises barely a third of the huge proscenium stage, and I would guess, since all is shielded in dark fabric, only a similar portion of the depth. To rectify this the actors, in addition to coming on and off through the glass revolves, enter from the auditorium to the side of the stage, and, for the London scene, pop up in the “slips” and bark back to the stage. It is the right look for John Haidar’s galvanic production and Tom Mothersdale scorpion delivery as Dickie but seems lost in all this volume. As do the lines. Not because of the delivery. In most cases this is sound as a pound but set against George Dennis’s throbbing, pounding, electronic sound the intensity is diluted, and occasionally, for the aurally challenged such as the Tourist, lost completely.

Now this being a Headlong production, (albeit in conjunction with Ally Pally, the Bristol Old Vic, Royal and Derngate and Oxford Playhouse, all of which it will travel to, as well as the Cambridge Arts Theatre and Home Manchester), there is still much to admire. With the Mother Courage, This House, Labour of Love, People, Places and Things, Junkyard, The Absence of War, American Psycho, 1984, Chimerica, The Effect, Medea and Enron, Headlong has been responsible for some of the best theatre the Tourist has seen in recent years. He even liked Common, John Haidar’s last outing, putting him in a minority of one. He would therefore never miss anything the company produces. All My Sons at the Old Vic and Hedda Tesman at Chichester already signed up with willing guests.

John Haidar has opted to sneak in a bit of Henry VI to provide context, (complete with first taste of murder before that “winter” even starts), juggles the standard text and cuts out superfluous characters, though doubling is kept to a minimum, and generally encourages a lively approach to the verse, (though nowhere near the gallop of Joe Hill-Gibbons’s Richard II at the Almeida recently) . This means each half barely ticks over into the hour. The focus then, as it should be, is on Tom Mothersdale’s Richard, and the “family” saga, if you will, a family from which Richard is permanently excluded, rather than the politics. Tom Kanji’s Clarence doesn’t take up too much time, the other assassinations are similarly rapidly dispatched, Stefan Adegbola’s smug Buckingham and Heledd Gywnn’s Hastings, (as arresting a presence as she was in the Tobacco Factory’s Henry V), take precedence in the jostling for power, and the scenes with the three women, Dickie’s, to say the least, disappointed, Mum, the Duchess of York (Eileen Nicholas), Edward IV’s Scottish widow Elizabeth (Derbhle Crotty) and sacrificial lamb Anne (Leila Mimmack), are given plenty of air time.

With Heledd Gwynn doubling up as Ratcliffe, Tom Kanji as Catesby and Leila Mimmack as Norfolk, the production achieves an admirable gender balance and also tips Richard’s murderous ascendancy into a joint enterprise, at least until he shafts his mates. The main cast is completed with John Sackville’s ghostly Henry VI, Michael Matus as Edward IV and then Stanley and Caleb Roberts as Richmond (and utility messenger). The stage then is literally set, what with the opening soliloquy and those mirrors, for Dickie to slay his way to the ghostly visitations. Each murder is marked by a red flash and a loud buzz just to make sure we get it.

Now the Tourist has seen young Mothersdale up close in the slightly disappointing Dealing with Clair at the OT recently, in the magnificent John by Annie Baker, as well as roles in Cleansed at the NT and Oil at the Almeida. He’s got it, no doubt. As he shows here. And, as he capers around the stage, in dark Burgundy suit and leather caliper, long-limbed, lank-locked, threatening, cajoling, pleading, squirming at Mummy’s rejection, he is certainly the “bottled spider” of Will’s description. But I am not sure he finds an angle. There is the caricature Richard of Thomas More Tudor myth, as Reformation Elizabethan England found its way in the world ordained by God. There is Richard as psycho executing to a plan, villainy as predestination. There is nudge, nudge, wink, wink comedy Richard who recruits us into the fun. Or there is poor, diddums, “nobody loves me so I’m going to show you” Richard who can’t stop once he gets started. And more. With multiple permutations.

Here we seem to get a bit of everything in this swift, safe production. Not the monomaniac man-child, (any resemblance to a current world leader is surely entirely deliberate), of the brilliant Hans Kesting in Kings of War, not the compulsive egotist of Lars Eidinger in the Schaubuhne production at the Barbican, not the amoral sociopath of Ralph Fiennes at the Almeida with that infamous rape scene, not the trad manipulator of Mark Rylance at the Globe. Of the other recent Dickie’s that the Tourist has enjoyed Tom Mothersdale comes closest to Greg Hicks’ take in the pint-sized, though still extremely effective production, under Mehmet Ergen at the Arcola in 2017. Except that Greg Hicks made every single word count and plumbed some very ugly depths in Richard’s misogynism and unquenchable grievance. And with chain permanently attaching arm to leg he offered a stark visual reminder of his “deformation”.

There are some fine moments, the “seductions”, the ghosts behind the mirrors, TM cringing at Mother’s curses and her recoiling from his touch, some meaningful gobbing, the writhing in the Bosworth mud at the end, and, like I say, this will probably work better at, say, Bristol or Oxford, but I would have preferred a more thoughtful, and yes, longer, interpretation. Still the one thing you know about Richard III’s, like Macbeth’s, Lear’s and Number 38’s, there will be another one along shortly.

The Tragedy of King Richard the Second at the Almeida Theatre review ****

The Tragedy of King Richard the Second

Almeida Theatre, 9th January 2019

Vain, frivolous, self pitying, introverted. Richard II doesn’t come across too well at the beginning of this play, Shakespeare’s first instalment of his histories that chart the origins of the “War of the Roses” and end with the death of Richard III and accession of Henry VII. Yet by the close of Richard II, acutely aware of his own fate, we see, not a different person, but a man who finally realises how his actions, as well as those of his aristocratic rivals, brought him to where he is. The distinction in Joe Hill-Gibbons’s quick-fire take on his tragedy is that his nemesis, Bolingbroke, who becomes Henry IV, travels in the entirely opposite direction, secure in his right to reclaim his titles, and then the throne, on returning from banishment, he quickly descends into a vacillating arbitrator of facile dispute.

The play highlights the fact that political power often overwhelms those that seek to wield it, as competing interests compromise consensus, a valuable lesson for our troubled times. Kings, and their democratic equivalents, are those that divvy up the prizes, once land, now patronage, to lords and their modern equivalents. These may owe allegiance but they can get mighty uppity if they feel taken for granted or hard done by. The joy, and instruction, of Shakespeare’s history plays, which examine the delicate balance between those that lead and those that keep them there, is that the deadly embrace continues to this day. Only now, we, the hot-polloi, have the right to stick our oar in as well. Apparently the “will of the people”, even if no-one knows what it is, least of all the people, is now the only source of legitimacy. Hmmmm.

In order to get to the heart of this tragedy though the production does take a few liberties with us the audience. First off it starts at the end, kind of, with Simon Russell Beale’s Richard II pronouncing “I have been studying how I may compare/This prison where I live unto the world.” Famous soliloquy dispatched what follows might be, TV drama style, his flashback.

Richard II is written entirely in patterned verse, (as are the first and third parts of Henry VI and the ropey King John), even down to the gardeners who get to comment, memorably, on the state of the country under their warring betters. The verse remains intact through the 100 minutes of the production, (with a few pointed additions), but its rhythms take something of a back seat. Especially in the first half hour or so, when the lines are delivered at breakneck speed. Not a problem for Simon Russell Beale as Richard II or Leo Bill as Bolingbroke (whose lines are deliberately less florid and more direct than Richard’s). However one or two of the less seasoned members of the cast snatched a little, noticeably in the arbitration, tournament and banishment scenes. The rhythm settles down by the time we get to John of Gaunt’s lament (“this sceptred isle …. now bound in with shame … hath made a shameful conquest of itself”; the speech is not about how great we are but how we manage to f*ck it all up, that, and a couple of lines of blatant anti-Semitism). Even then you have to keep your ears open and your wits about you.

There is also, (not unreasonably since, as events pile up, it really works as a conceit, especially when combined with some inspired choreography), a lot of character doubling and more. The Tourist always recommends that Shakespeare is best consumed following a little homework into context and synopsis. A quick Google on the way in is all that is required, as witness BUD who was my guest here, even for those who think they know the plot backwards. Ironing out your Aumerle (here Martins Imhangbe) from your Carlisle (Natalie Klamar) from your York (John Mackay) from your Northumberland (Robin Weaver) always pays dividends. Knowing which aristo is on which side has historically always been a sound real life lesson as it happens: knowing why is a bonus.

Fans of “historical” Shakespeare, whatever that is, are also in for a bit of a shock here. ULTZ’s set is a stark, bare cube, comprised of brushed metal panels riveted together, topped by a frosted glass ceiling. It serves very well as prison cell, less figuratively as castle, garden or jousting field. As a way of showing how power plays out in claustrophobic rooms and crushes those who exercise it, it does the business though thank you very much, and, remember, we might be in the prison of Dickie’s mind anyway.

This set works especially well when combined with James Farncombe’s bold lighting design. JH-G had a huge cast on his last outing and a magnificent recreation of a Soho drinking den at the close of WWII courtesy of Lizzie Clachlan and a fat lot of good that did him. It was awful. Though that was more the play’s fault than his. Here he is on much firmer ground as he was with his excellent Midsummer Night’s Dream and measure for Measure at the Young Vic. His fascination with soil continues, there are buckets of earth, water and blood lined up and neatly notated at the back of the stage. I like to think they symbolised “this England”: they certainly left SRB needing a hot shower post curtain call.

Of the supporting cast I was particularly taken with Saskia Reeves, as I always am, who got to be the argumentative Mowbray, the unfortunate Bushy, (with Martins Imhangbe playing Bagot, his head-losing mate), the other favourite Green, and the Duchess of York, and Joseph Mydell, a composed Gaunt as well as Bolingbroke sidekick Willoughby. Various explicit nobles on both sides are excised from this reading, as is the Queen amongst others, and, should a fill-in be required, out stepped one of the cast from the “chorus”-like crowd. Brutal it may be for purists, but in terms of reinforcing the hurtling momentum, very effective.

Leo Bill once again shows why JH-G has faith in his Shakespearean abilities, but it is Simon Russell Beale who carries the weight of the production on his shoulders. How he ensures that we not only take in but understand the impact of every line he utters is a wonder, especially in the return to England and Flint Castle surrender scenes. Even when he wasn’t dashing out his metaphor and simile strewn lines in double quick time, and wasn’t soaked through covered in mud, this was a cracking performance. The fact that he was, and that we can still savour Shakespeare’s language, and sense the difference between the body politic and the body natural, (the, er, embodiment of the medieval king), shows again why he is now unarguably our greatest living Shakespearean actor.

In this performance Richard’s early, flawed, decision-making seems less vanity or indecisiveness and more high-handed hauteur, the desire just to get the job done regardless of consequences. I’m the king, by divine right, so of course I know what to do. There isn’t much in the way of Christ-like martyrdom here as there was in David Tennant’s guilt-ridden 2013 RSC take or in Ben Whishaw’s petulant Hollow Crown reading. No white robes or flowing mane of hair here. The fact that SRB is “too old”, the real Dickie was in his early thirties for the last two years of his reign when the play is set, and that he, and Leo Bill, look nothing like the generally accepted take on the characters, only adds to the universality of the message.

The early years of the actual Richard’s reign weren’t too jolly for him by all accounts. Acceding to the throne aged just 10, with a bunch of nobles preferring a series of ruling councils to a regency under Uncle John (of Gaunt), the Hundred Years War with France not going England’s way, Scotland and Ireland playing up and labour growing its share of the prosperity pot at the expense of landed capital (the Black Death had led to a sharp spike in agricultural wages). In 1381 the Peasants even had the temerity to Revolt. By now though the young king was throwing his weight around but many of the entitled aristos, (whom we meet in the play), didn’t hold with the company he kept and in 1387 the so called Lords Appellant, (Gloucester, Surrey, Warwick, Bolingbroke and Mowbray), seized control and one by one, tried and disposed of Richard’s favourites.

By 1389 Richard was back in control, with Gaunt’s oversight, and, for a few years, got on with the job. But he never forgot what his opponents had done and, come 1397 he started taking revenge, notably, on Gloucester, his uncle, who he had bumped off. This is often where the play steps off with the King’s bloody guilt informing the four short years before his death, probably by starvation, after Bolingbroke’s usurpation.

Richard was allegedly a good looking lad, see above, who believed absolutely in his divine right to rule at the expense of the uppity Lords. He wasn’t a warrior, rather a man of art and culture, aloof and surrounded by a close knit retinue. As with all the big players in the history plays, our perception of Richard II, is though to some degree shaped by the Bard’s not always favourable publicity (that’s if you have any view at all of course). Via his favourite contemporary historian Raphael Holinshed. There was apparently a time when historians thought Richard was insane: now the wisdom is that he had some sort of personality disorder that contributed to his downfall.

Mind you if you were locked up in solitary confinement you might well lose the plot. There is an extract in the programme taken from Five Unforgettable Stories from Inside Solitary Confinement by Jean Casella and James Ridgeway from Solitary Watch. Solitary Watch tracks the estimated more than 80.000 prisoners in the US system held in solitary confinement on an average day. Here four prisoners eloquently describe their experience. Left me speechless. 80,000. That’s not a typo. Google it.

So another success from the Almeida hit factory, another masterclass from Simon Russell Beale and another validation of Joe Hill-Gibbons radical(ish) way with Shakespeare. BUD, whose first exposure this was to the history plays, agreed. Mind you there isn’t much in this world that he can’t size up within 5 minutes of first introduction.

There is probably a case for JH-G slowing down proceedings just a little, another 15 minutes wouldn’t have been a stretch, just to let the poetry work a bit more magic, give a little more complexity to Bolingbroke and the nobles, and draw out more from the themes. And the stylised, expressionist visual concepts won’t, (and haven’t), pleased everyone. But as a coruscating denunciation of the perennial failure of the political class, you want see much better on a stage even if it was written over 420 years ago.

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms at the British Library review *****

Anglo-Saxon Kingsdoms: Art, Word, War

British Library, 30th December 2018

I mean it isn’t all books. There are charters and letters as well. And pottery, coins, art and jewels. But there are a lot of books. Oh my word though, what beautiful books. If you are at all interested in this period of history and the formation of our country, and you like, as Tubbs would say, precious things, (which haven’t been burnt, or otherwise destroyed, notably by the dispersal of monastic libraries in the 1530s), then this is unmissable. The British Library has wheeled out some of its finest treasures from the period, Beowulf, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the St Cuthbert Gospel and Bede’s works, but it doesn’t stop there, with some extraordinary loans from the British Museum, Cathedrals (Canterbury, Durham, Exeter, Lichfield and Rochester), Oxbridge colleges (notably the Parker Library at Corpus Christi Cambridge) and generous institutions around the world (notably France, the Netherlands, Sweden and, maybe best of all, Italy).

The exhibition begins with the first Anglo-Saxons coming to Britain in the 5th century, takes us through the kingdoms that emerged, Kent, East Anglia, Northumberland, Mercia and Wessex, before England was created, as well as the continuing influence of the Danes, and, finally the Normans. We see how the history, art and literature of these Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms developed, and we see the emergence of the English language, (though don’t expect, unless you are an expert in these things, to be able to read the manuscripts. but do listen to the spoken originals and modern translations provided).

The earliest evidence of the language is contained in some cynic inscriptions and a Kentish law code in the first room, Origins. My first highlight though was the unique Spong Man urn lid from the 5th century, he looks so crestfallen, but then again so might you if you were sat atop someone’s ashes. The St Augustine Gospels from the late 6th century are something special, but the Moore Bede from the mid 8th century, copied out soon after the Venerable’s death at his own monastery Wearmouth-Jarrow, is a jaw-dropper. This is the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the page on show tracing the journey of St Augustine, in letters. The script is pretty dense but this is basically the beginning of our written history.

The second room, Kingdoms and Conversions, has some exquisite jewellery from, amongst others, Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire Hoard, but once again I was drawn to the scripts. The fragment of a letter from St Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, possibly from the late 4th century, brought here by Abbot Hadrian, various charters, letters and rules from the 7th and 8th centuries, the beginnings of our systems of law, and the Book of Durrow from c. 700 with its various decorative influences. These are trumped though by the beautifully preserved Echternach Gospels, maybe from Ireland, maybe Northumbria, maybe Echternach itself in Luxembourg, the even more spectacular Lindisfarne Gospels also c. 700, and, drum roll please, the Codex Amiatinus.

OMG. Now even if your are some bored teen being dragged around by your pillock of a Dad I defy you not to be impressed by this. First off, it is bloody enormous, 1030 leaves in total. Secondly the page it is open to, a full page illumination of a scribe at work, is just so vibrant and, finally, the history of the Bible itself is just so fascinating. One of three made at Wearmouth-Jarrow in the early years of the 8th century it was taken in 716 by Abbot Ceolfrith and chums to Rome. AC, poor chap, died on the way but in the 1300 years until now it has been cared for in Italy, latterly at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence. Welcome home then Codex Amiatinus, if only for a short visit. It is the oldest complete Latin Vulgate version of the Bible; only the fragmentary Leon palimpsest is older. It was assumed to be Italian, from the 6th century, until some top-drawer research revealed that it was actually created during Northumbria’s Golden Age.

Take your time surrounded by these gems. There are more treasures to come but this room, for me, was the pinnacle. The next room, Mercia and Its Neighbours, details the rise of that kingdom, through military power and political skill, and the creation of a third archdiocese at Lichfield alongside York and Canterbury. Once again the Gospels (Barberini, St Chad, Harley Golden) will draw your eye, as will the Lichfield Angel if you have not see it before, but I was particularly interested in the various charters, from King Aethebald dated 736 and from King Offa dated 783, and the evidence of links with Charlemagne in mainland Europe. It made me reflect again on how the powerful choose leaders primarily to validate their own appropriation of land and capital, and spend an awful lot of time arguing with each other to secure leaders more amenable to their ambitions.

The Favourite, Richard II, C18 British history, Brexit newsflow, this exhibition. All entertainments and/or learnings on the Tourist’s plate in the last couple of weeks, all variations in part on this theme. Similarly the next room, The Rise of the West Saxons, which charts the ascendancy of King Alfred and his successors and the idea of an England. Now the Tourist cheerfully confesses that he is addicted to The Last Kingdom, the TV series now in its third season, based on Bernard Cornwall’s The Saxon Stories novels. Now it is a bit daft at times, and cheesy, and the main protagonist, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, and his mates, do, implausibly, get about a bit. He may be fictional but many of the other players on show were for real and, in David Dawson playing Alfred, it has a top-notch actor showing his class. Like I always say, take your education wherever you can.

By 880 Alfred had made peace with the Danes, who were increasingly “naturalising”, and promoted a cultural leap forward, with the development especially of the English language. This legacy continued through grandson Aelthelstan, the first King of England from 927 to 939, who claimed control of Northumbria and submission from the Scots, Welsh and remaining Britons. Aethelstan centralised government, expanded the reach of the law, founded places of religion, (his personal psalter, a pocket gospels, is on display), and got stuck into European politics. So there you are little Englanders. Even when little England first became a reality we were tied to that pesky Europe. It will never go away whatever you may think. BTW, in my final, I promise, “look at me” moment in this post, I walked past the very spot where Aethelstan was crowned not a few hours ago. Outside the police station in Kingston-upon-Thames. I kid you not.

So no surprise that I took a long look at the Council of Kingston document in the exhibition which dates from 838 and confirms the alliance between Ecgberht, Alfred’s grandad, and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The beautiful Stockholm Codex Aureus, on loan from, er, Stockholm, will also detain you but it is the famous historical documents, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Asser’s Life of King Alfred, the treaty between Alfred and Guthrum the Dane, a translation from Alfred himself and the Foothill Letter from the early 10th century, the oldest letter in the English language, that require careful examination. History. Boring. Think again.

Highlights of the next room, the self-explanatory Language, Learning and Literature, include the only surviving manuscript of Beowulf, the greatest Anglo-Saxon literary relic, the Junius Manuscript, 1000 lines of Old English verse, the Old English Hexateuch, the first six books of the Bible and the Old English translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. If your interest extends to natural sciences, medicine and mathematics then you will be fascinated by this section.

The next room, Kingdom and Church, is focussed on the elevation of the Church under King Edgar, Alfred’s great-grandson. The highlight here comes at the end with the display of the Utrecht (825), Harley (first half 11th century) and Eadwin (c. 1150), Psalters displayed side by side. Seeing how one was copied into another into another is just amazing. Prior to this though the room is stuffed full of dainties, notably the Benedictional of Aethelwold from the 970s, the Vespasian Psalter from the second quarter of the eighth century, (the earliest Biblical text in the English language), the Boulogne and, especially, Trinity Gospels and the Winchester Troper.

The final room, Conquests and Landscapes, looks at the return of the Danes under Cnut and then the Norman Conquest, culminating with the BL’s Domesday Book and a short video.

I could go on and on but no purpose would be served in this. I have my catalogue accompanying the exhibition and can safely say, as one who regularly purchases such items, (and doesn’t always look at them immediately), that this is one of the most informative, involving and attractive I have ever seen. Even the short exhibition guide is a mine of information and the notes to the exhibits themselves could not be clearer.

All in all, and given the potential bone-dry bear-trap of a subject, early English history, and exhibits, in a word books, (though there is, as I said, plenty of other material on show here), this is a triumph. Maybe not enough to persuade those for whom history and manuscripts are anathema but if you have any interest at all, from any angle, don’t hesitate. No need, as ever with these things, to dutifully read every note or take in every exhibit. But if you can’t find at least a few items that command your attention I would be amazed.

It is on until 19th February. Usual rules apply. First thing in the morning. Sunday afternoon or the later slots on Tuesday when this opens until 8pm. And avoid the last week.