Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2019

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I’ve just had the enormous pleasure to spend four days at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I have long-adored the city, but had never visited the world-famous festival before, so this was quite literally a dream holiday. The city remained as beautiful as ever, with the added bonus that everywhere you turned, there was a remarkable talent (or a shameless exhibitionist) on display. As my friend said, “There’s not a single room in Edinburgh they’ve not crammed something into, is there?” And she’s right. We plodded around theatres, pubs, comedy clubs, spare rooms in bar basements and even the Student’s Union building in search of entertainment, and boy, did the city deliver. Since this is a blog all about reviews, it seems only fair to then discuss, if only briefly, every show I saw on my whistle stop visit, starting with…

Best of the Fest: Daytime

We decided to open with a show that would give us a taster of the sort of thing to expect from the week. With a rotating cast of comedy and music acts, you never know who you’ll be seeing in the spiegeltent on the day. Our MC was drag act Reuben Kaye who burst onto the stage with great energy and introduced us to comedian Marlon Davis, comedy troupe Pamela’s Palace, sketch-performing duo Max and Ivan, and dancers Noise Boys. All great fun, the middle two involving audience interaction (important tip for Edinburgh: unless you’re a confident sort, don’t sit in the front row or on an end), but probably it was Reuben who stole the show. His flyer contained a review saying he was like a hybrid of Liza Minnelli and Jim Carrey, and it’s very hard to dispute that. I’d recommend a “Best of the Fest” to anyone, like me, who is new to it and wants to get a taste of the thing.

Cordelia and Dimple: Buffet

In the spirit of there not being a single empty room during the Festival, we dived into a tiny room beneath the City Cafe, around the size of my bedroom, where maybe fifteen people were sat for Dimple Pau and Cordelia Graham. Due to the smallness of the room, it was an intensely intimate gig where I was sat but a foot from the performers. Had they not been funny, this would have been very awkward, but fortunately they were. Dimple shared stories of her home life, where her parents strict adherence to veganism has meant she has to lie about her own lifestyle, and Cordelia points out the struggles of having a mother who quotes Shakespeare all the time. When Cordelia, however, complained that she wanted to write a book but would never get round to it, she asked the audience if any of them had ever published a book. Basically, what I’m saying is, thanks for letting me plug my novel in a very minor way at the Fringe!

The Daily Ceilidh

This was not so much a show as an experience, but it’s worth mentioning because it still appears in the brochure and was enormous fun. Held in the awesome Stramash bar, throughout the Fringe the bar hosts a new band and a ceilidh every evening. For those who don’t know, a ceilidh (pronounced “kay-lee”) is a traditional Scottish folk dance and is fast, frantic and, I discovered to my immense pleasure, fun. Had I been alone, there was no way I would have taken part, but after watching a few dances, my friend and I joined the crowd and got stuck in. I don’t think I’d realised that “dance in a ceilidh” was on my bucket list until it happened.

Zoe Lyons: Entry Level Human

I’ve been a big fan of Brighton-based comedian Zoe Lyons since she first started appearing on TV, so she was high on my list of people I wanted to see. As a big fan of comedy, I was also aware of the Gilded Balloon as a big Edinburgh location, and it was a thrill to be in there, too. Zoe’s set was fast and enormously witty, with talk on why computer experts all sound a bit adenoidal, why we all become a bit more “Brexit-y” as we get older, what makes flies able to get into a window but not out of one, the problem with Deliveroo, and the dangers of travelling to very conservative Muslim countries as a lesbian. (Spoiler: the problem isn’t what you think.) I love her even more than I did before – an absolutely stellar show and one of my favourites.

Mark Watson: I Appreciate You Coming to This and Let’s Hope For the Best

When he appeared on Taskmaster, Greg Davies insisted repeatedly that Mark looks like a heron. Having now seen him in person, I can only agree. His terrible posture is made up for by his absolutely incredible material, made all the more impressive that this show is a “work in progress”, meaning it’s not actually finished yet and he’s just testing jokes and routines to see how they work for a final show to go on tour later in the year. Mark manages to be wonderfully self-deprecating but also comes across as a genuinely nice man who is just a bit wound up and only thin because he lives life at a level of anxiety that his body can’t keep up with. There was talk of his recent divorce, why he’s a bad parent, his attempts at learning to drive, and how to deal with the responsibility of being in the exit row of a plane. But given the nature of the show, what he talks about another night might be entirely different.

Ben Van der Velde: Fablemaker

Speaking of a different show every night, we come to Ben Van der Velde. I’m already a big fan as the podcast he co-hosts, Worst Foot Forward, is one of my absolute favourites, so I was determined to catch him at the Fringe. Based entirely around crowd work, of which he is surely one of the masters, he finds out about his audience and weaves their stories into a single narrative with an astounding memory of names and details. Because of this reliance on the crowd, every show is entirely different, but Ben manages to keep the audience on-side and any digs at them are tongue-in-cheek and he never oversteps the line to direct offence, no matter what he’s actually saying. And, as a bonus, we had a nice chat after the show as well and he was just as charming off stage as on.

The Thinking Drinkers: Heroes of Hooch

If a show is advertised where you get given drinks while you watch it, you know I’m going to be there. The Thinking Drinkers are Tom and Ben, two alcohol experts who have the mantra, “Drink less, drink better”, which is solid advice. The show takes the form of both a set of comedy skits and a Ted Talk about the history of alcohol, as we explore how it came to be and who has loved it since. Focusing on “heroes of hooch”, the pair touch on the alcohol-fuelled exploits of the likes of Buzz Aldrin, Albert Einstein, Amelia Earhart, and even God. Throughout, the audience are handed drinks and taught how to taste them. We knocked back beer, gin, rum, whisky and Gran Marnier as the show became more hysterical. It’s kind of like QI, but down the pub.

Shit-Faced Shakespeare

Is this a pint I see before me? The opposite of the previous show, here the audience aren’t given alcohol, but we instead see a performance of Macbeth where one of the cast has been drinking for hours before the performance begins. This time round it was Banquo who had been on the lash (six beers and quarter of a bottle of gin) and thus began one of the most anarchic performances of Shakespeare I’ve ever encountered. While the rest of the five-person cast gamely tries to complete the play, our Banquo (who also took on the role of Lady Macduff and one of the witches) stumbled through her words, was encouraged to drink further by the audience, and at one point even kicked Macbeth in the face. The rest of the cast hilariously incorporate any mistakes into the play, and it was one of the maddest things I’ve ever seen. It’s what William would have wanted.

Are we not drawn onward to new erA?

We decided we had to get something highbrow in, and the reviews of this show from Belgian troupe Ontroerend Goed were amazing, so we decided to snatch up some tickets. Experimental theatre at its most experimental, this show sees a first act take place entirely in reverse with even the dialogue happening backwards, making it sound like you’re watching The Sims on stage. The actors destroy a tree, litter the stage with plastic bags and build a statue. At the halfway point, they realise that they have destroyed their world, and the second act sees exactly what happened the first time but forwards instead. How do they achieve this? That’s not my place to say, but it blows the mind, and things take on a different take when seen the other way around. A haunting and intelligent piece about climate change and environmental disaster.

Agatha is Missing

You thought I’d manage to get through the whole experience without somehow involving Agatha Christie, did you? Please, I’m not an amateur. In this one-woman show, we meet Miss Clarissa Marbles of Scotland Yard, who is attempting to solve the mystery of Agatha Christie’s disappearance. Everyone in the room is a suspect, but we also get a chance to submit our own solutions and see if we can work it out. Relying heavily on audience participation, suspects and witnesses are called up out of the crowd, sometimes selected by Marbles, but sometimes simply by previous players. Shows like this only work if the audience are into it, and while most people gave it a good go, others were clearly dazzled by the lights and couldn’t handle the pressure. I’m not saying I could do any better, but when there’s nothing for the host to bounce off of, it means some lines fall a bit flat. Prudence Wright Holmes, however, the single performer, is absolutely wonderful and fully embodied the hilarious role, from her abhorrence regarding anything modern or immoral, to her tuneless singing of the national anthem.

Geeks, Stand Up

This was another free show we decided to pop in on and give a chance to as the concept seemed interesting. The premise is simple enough: four geeky comedians get to come on and talk about things they are passionate about but are a bit too niche to include in their usual set. I was a bit worried this might mean an hour of Star Wars or Avengers talk that I didn’t understand, but the spread was wide, with the MC taking on the superhero stuff (and finding the audience taking the opposite point of view for almost everything he said), and the other four joking about basketball, online homophobia, archaeology and professional wrestling. A decidedly mixed bag, the absolute stand out was 19-year-old Andrew White who tackled homophobia and did jokes about being the only single person in his hometown and not being a stereotype because he can’t dress well. He also included some of his “failed” observational comedy, including the bizarre but honest question, “Why do you never see a little branch of Asda?” Very true, and funny simply by the conceit of not being funny at all. Fortunately, he knows this, and he’s very much in on the joke.

Phil Wang: Philly Philly Wang Wang

Phil’s rise to the top of the comedy pile seems to have been meteoric, but we sure are glad to have him. In his highly-polished show at the Pleasance (another one of those fabled Fringe institutions), he discusses getting older and how this has impacted his farting habits, when it’s OK to impersonate another race’s accent, male contraception, and how Tinder is the quickest way to gain friends but not actually have any sex. Sweet and very endearing, he is great at balancing egotism and self-deprecation. I particularly enjoyed the quip, “People try to call me a minority, but I’m half English and half Chinese. I’m both majorities.” This, he explains, means that whichever side of the world ends up taking over, he’ll be fine.

Alex Love: How to Win a Pub Quiz (British Edition)

Hosted by Alex Love, this one saw the first half of the performance involve a stand-up set, and the second half contained a pub quiz, mostly based on things that Alex had discussed. It was a nice concept, and Alex had a few good moments, but the show unfortunately stalled a couple of times, particularly when team names were recorded and points were added up. Alex did his best to fill the gaps, and some of the questions were very clever, relying on red herrings and trip-ups from his earlier stories, such as talking about Tim Peake or Loch Ness, but then asking questions on similar topics where the answers were actually Helen Sharman or Lough Neagh. A good quiz, but could have benefited from being hosted more like one, rather than with the audience in rows.

Stuart Goldsmith: Primer

Another show I went to because of a podcast, and another work in progress. Stuart Goldsmith hosts The Comedian’s Comedian Podcast, in which he interviews other comics about their careers and processes, and whenever he’s released a stand-up set alongside it, they are also hysterical. His new work in progress show was similarly brilliant. His notes were up on the side of the stage alongside him, and it was charming to see him work through them, as well as leave audio notes for himself on his recording of the show. Topics included how you change as you get to know your romantic partner better, how to perform acts of terrorism on the cheap, the large population of fairies in his nearby park, and the incredible story of the time his family stole a car. Incredible stuff, and I hope I get to hear the final show at some point.


And that’s it! Fourteen in four days is pretty heavy going. I already plan on going back for next year, for longer hopefully, but I think a day of rest in the middle would be very necessary. If you’re in Edinburgh and are looking for suggestions, I hope some of these have helped. And if there is anything you saw that you think I should know about, please let me know! It’s astonishing how many thousands of performances there are and I wish there was time to do them all. As it is, my first Fringe experience was absolutely wonderful and I consider myself very lucky to have seen such great shows.

For those uninterested in this stuff, don’t worry. Book reviews will continue again in the next few days.

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“Oh, I Do Like To Be…” by Marie Phillips (2019)

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“It was a hot day in the summer, one of those days that glimmers like a mayfly, only to be trampled under the heels of an unseasonal downpour twenty-four hours later.”

Marie Phillips is responsible for one of my favourite books about the Greek myths – Gods Behaving Badly – so it was nice (if surprising) to see her appear on Unbound with a new novel. Once again she’s taking someone from history and putting them down in the modern world. Once again, she does it with style, humour and fun.

Billy is a modern day clone of William Shakespeare. His sister, Sally, is from the control group, cloned from a hair found on a bus seat. Since realising that his creator and mother Eleanor doesn’t think Billy will ever live up to the original, the pair have spent the last five years travelling around Britain, stopping in at seaside towns where Billy can seek inspiration and finally write a new Shakespeare play. Unfortunately, the town they’ve chosen this time has a problem – and the problem is Bill and Sal.

Bill and Sal have no idea that they are clones of Shakespeare and a random hair, but Bill is a successful writer anyway. When Billy meets Sal and Sally meets Bill, things begin to unravel with frantic speed as the pairs enter into a farce of epic proportions where no one is who they seem, misunderstandings are frequent, and it’s very possible that at least one of them is going mad…

I love a book with a silly premise, and having clones of Shakespeare wandering around in the modern world is a good one. It’s not been done since Jasper Fforde had a go, but with vastly different results. It takes a sharp mind – and, I imagine, a lot of post-its – to keep track of a farce like this and they’re much easier to do on stage and screen than on paper, but Phillips does wonders with the concept. Fittingly, it gives the whole thing a sense of a Shakespearean play, given he had a fondness for long-lost twins and confused identities.

Aside from the obvious plot, it’s also a great insight into the nature/nurture debate in psychology. Billy knows he is Shakespeare and then feels threatened and creatively crippled as he can’t ever do as well as the original. Bill knows nothing and yet manages to produce copious plays, poems and novels. I like the argument Eleanor makes that if Billy can’t do it, it proves that whoever it was who wrote Shakespeare’s plays, it wasn’t Shakespeare. I’m firmly on the side that says he did, but a friend and I got to debating last week. The book also seems to be a love letter to the seaside towns of Britain that most of us have visited at one time or another for family holidays as children and the like. It conjures up a world of ice cream vans, bucket and spade shops, and picture postcards that automatically stir up feelings of nostalgia.

Daft and wonderfully clever, as only Marie Phillips can do.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“If We Were Villains” by M. L. Rio (2017)

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“I sit with my wrists cuffed to the table and I think, But that I am forbid / To tell the secrets of my prison-house, / I could a tale unfold whose lightest word / Would harrow up thy soul.

I can’t claim by any stretch of the imagination to be a Shakespeare scholar. Oh, I enjoy some of his plays and I find him a very fascinating historical figure, but despite my background being in storytelling, many of the nuances of his plays are unfortunately lost to me. I think it’s the language. For some people, however, Shakespeare can become an obsession and a way of life. This is all well and good, but his plays house some of the most intense emotions in the entirety of the English canon, and when those heightened feelings begin to run off the stage and into the real world, who knows what may happen…

Oliver Marks has just been released from prison after serving ten years for murder. The man who put him in prison, Detective Colborne, is there to meet him, and brings with him news. Colborne is retiring and asks Oliver, as a favour, to clear up a few things once and for all; the first of which being, what really happened that night ten years ago, and is Oliver actually as guilty as the world believes?

Through five acts, we flash back to Oliver and his friends in their fourth year at Dellecher, a prestigious and exclusive university in Illinois. There are seven of them in the group: Richard (bombastic and bullying), Wren (quiet and frail), Meredith (seductive and sexy), James (artistic and proud), Alexander (fun and flippant), Filippa (mysterious yet understanding) and Oliver himself, the eternal sidekick. The friends are often cast in the same sorts of roles over and over in their performances and it’s becoming difficult to tell where their characters end and where their true selves begin. After a particularly raucous party after a somewhat disastrous performance of Julius Caesar, one of their number is dead. Was it an accident, or is one of the remaining six a killer? As Oliver recounts his memories to Colborne, secrets are revealed, truths are uncovered and mysteries are unravelled.

I’m not the first to point it out, but there is absolutely no getting away from the fact that this book has an awful lot in common with Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Both are filled with wealthy students in an eminent school, and one of them is killed. However, in Tartt’s novel, we know from the off that it’ll be Bunny. Here, we are almost two hundred pages in before we find out who the victim is. Here they’re theatre students, and Tartt writes about Greek students, but at the end of the day it all feels like it falls under the same umbrella of pretentiousness.

The characters are not particularly unlikable – most of them, anyway – but they would be insufferable to know personally. They are so wrapped up in their love of Shakespeare that they can (and do) quote whole scenes and passages conversationally, even when supposedly paralytic with drink. Their relationships with one another are beautifully intertwined and more complicated than they first appear, but the pairing I find most engaging is Oliver and James. Both ostensibly straight, they do seem to have some kind of feeling for one another. Oliver describes is as transcending gender, but Rio remains ambiguous towards the true nature of their relationship. Ambiguity laces a lot of the text, which feels apt. Shakespeare can be interpreted in any number of ways, and here again, the reader is invited to let their own ideas take hold.

As with The Secret History reading like a Greek tragedy, this one certainly plays out like something Shakespeare would have written, with themes of friendship, power, revenge, lust, grief, heartbreak and anger all bubbling through. Excusing the long conversations told through the Bard’s own words, it’s not that difficult a read and there’s certainly something that grips you. At first it’s because you want to know which character it is that’s going to die, and then once that’s done, you wonder whether Oliver did it and was rightly in prison, or if there’s something else going on.

As I said above, Shakespearean emotions run high and at the extremes. Here again, everyone feels intensely and I’m pretty sure there isn’t a single reader who wouldn’t be captivated by the story, their own emotions running very high. A very sharp novel, and one of those few examples that prove some literary fiction still has a place in the world.

“How To Stop Time” by Matt Haig (2017)

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“I am old.”

It was years ago when I first picked up a Matt Haig book, The Humans, thinking it sounded like a funny concept. I wasn’t prepared for what a profoundly wise and beautiful book it was, nor that he would become such an important part of my life, and the lives of countless other readers. I’ve plowed through his stuff since, and we finally now arrive at his latest offering, How to Stop Time. Everyone else seems to have read this a couple of months ago, so I’m a bit behind, but nonetheless, here it is. And it was worth waiting for.

Tom Hazard was born in 1581 and is still alive in 2017, although only looks about forty years old. He is an alba, a person born with a condition that means they age very slowly. It is a difficult life and one that involves having to constantly move around and change identity so people don’t notice that you don’t age, a task made all the more difficult by the modern world.

Tom works, reluctantly, with the Albatross Society who find other albas and protect them from scientists who would long to learn the secret of advanced lifespans, but he’s had enough and asks to be retired. He takes up a position teaching history at a London school, where he finds himself smitten with the beautiful French teacher Camille. But Camille is sure she recognises Tom from somewhere – somewhen – else, and Tom is reminded of the fact that any “mayfly” (normally aging human) who finds out about the albas tends not to have their lives cut even shorter…

One of the risks of writing books about people who have spent a long time in our history is the temptation to have them stumble across every major historical figure and befriend them. Haig resists this, and it is far more a story of the ordinary people. However, that’s not to say there aren’t famous cameos, but they are kept to a respectable minimum. Tom works for Shakespeare briefly, and travels to Australia with Captain Cook, but otherwise his interactions with history’s great and good are downplayed. He meets the Fitzgeralds in a French bar in the 1920s, and the Dr Hutchinson he meets in 1891 was a real man, but most everyone else is thoroughly normal.

In the same manner as the non-fiction series of history books by Ian Mortimer, history is brought to life by these interactions with the “ordinary people”. We experience witch hunts, plague, the jazz age, voyages of discovery and Elizabethan entertainment from the ground level, with descriptions that conjure up all the sights, sounds and smells of a bygone era. Haig paints an immersive, exciting world, and it’s an honour to be able to join him in exploring it.

As with everything Matt Haig writes, it’s phenomenally profound and beautiful with a lot to say about the nature of humanity, particularly with how we don’t change, loss, love and aging. It’s bang up to date, with mentions of fake news and Donald Trump, and Tom’s worry that the 21st century is just turning into a cheap copy of the 20th. Via Tom, Haig argues that humanity has not advanced in a straight line from idiocy to enlightenment, but that it’s been more of a rollercoaster, although there’s a fear we’re heading into a new Dark Ages, with new susperstitions and witch hunts under different names with different targets happening once again. There is, however, in there somewhere a sense of hope, and an exploration of why we should keep on living and trying to better ourselves. One line I adored, as a bibliophile, was, “Whenever I see someone reading a book, especially if it is someone I don’t expect, I feel civilisation has become a little safer.”

And with people like Matt Haig still writing, I feel the world is a little safer still.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“Something Rotten” by Jasper Fforde (2004)

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something“The Minotaur had been causing trouble far in excess of his literary importance.”

And I’m back to Fforde. This review will contain spoilers for those who haven’t read the earlier books, so make sure you’re up to date on The Eyre Affair, Lost in a Good Book and The Well of Lost Plots before checking this one out. This might just be the best of the bunch so far.

The fourth book in Thursday Next’s story picks up in 1988, two years after the events of the last one. She’s now heading up Jurisfiction and has spent most of the missing years within fiction, avoiding the real world where her husband no longer exists, having been eradicated when he was two-years-old. She is still a woman of action though, and hasn’t been held back by her infant son Friday. However, when an incident in the Western genre goes wrong, Thursday finds herself unwilling to stay on and so makes her way back into the real world, bringing Hamlet along with her as he’s under the impression that people in the Outland see him as something of a ditherer.

It couldn’t be a worse time to bring a Danish prince to England though, as the new Chanellor Yorrick Kaine – a fictional character who has escaped from who knows where – has all but declared war on Denmark and is setting about banning all Danish literature. Elsewhere, evil corporation Goliath has decided to apologise for all its past transgressions and is turning itself into a religion, the thirteenth-century seer St Zvlkx is due to make an appearance again, hopefully to discuss his Revealments, there’s an assassin after Thursday, in the absence of Hamlet, Ophelia has led a hostile takeover of the play and ruined it, and the fate of the world rests on Swindon winning the World Croquet League this coming weekend.

It’s just another normal day for Thursday Next.

As ever, there are a million different threads here but they all tie up wonderfully. Things from previous novels are brought back and explained, and we get a whole new list of things to enjoy. The star of the book though, other than Thursday, is Hamlet. He begins consuming the different versions of his play that we’ve produced, and finds that everyone seems to have their own take on who he is and how he feels. After all, he’s never had a clue himself. He’s portrayed as a worrier who is unable to make a snap decision, as well as being somewhat vain but very emotionally unstable. He’s a delight, and you can tell Fforde enjoyed playing with him, although at the end you do get the feeling it was all done just to have a single joke pay off brilliantly. But I’m not complaining.

Another great sequence involves Thursday and friends heading across the Welsh border to track down a cloned Shakespeare, playing on the notion of infinite monkeys on infinite typewriters. What if you had infinite Shakespeares? How much quicker would you find genius? The book is full of great scenes, and also becomes the first in the series to introduce illustrations, which bring to life the bizarre world even further.

There’s also the introduction of a few new characters, such as Cindy Stoker, the most dangerous assassin in England and wife of Thursday’s friend Spike, Millon de Floss, Thursday’s official stalker, and young Friday, who is it hinted at will become very important to the planet’s future survival. After spending the majority of the last book inside the Bookworld, it’s quite refreshing to now return to this bizarre, twisted version of England that Fforde has created. Any world that gives us dodos, croquet as a national sport, and George Formby as President is one that I want to spend more time in. Fforde continues to write with such intelligent humour that you laugh your way through a book that feels light as air and never bogs you down, despite occasionally dealing with some very dramatic and beautifully written scenes about love and loss.

The book feels like it’s wrapping up, and in some ways it is. This isn’t the last we’ve seen of Thursday, but it feels like an end of “part one”, as in the next book, we will have jumped ahead in time to the early 21st century. But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it…

“Macbeth” and “As You Like It” by William Shakespeare (1599 – 1606)

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This post is an unusual one as it is for two books, both of which were too similar to really warrant pages of their own. Last year I reviewed (individually) manga versions of two of Shakespeare’s plays; Henry VIII and Much Ado About Nothing. I return here with two more.

macbeth“Macbeth” by William Shakespeare (1606)

“When shall we three meet again?”

Macbeth is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, and one I studied at school more years ago than I care to think about. Along with Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, it is probably his most famous play, and even if you’ve never read or seen it, you’ll know some of the quotes and characters from it.

While the text of the play remains the same here as in the original, the setting has been entirely changed, now taking place in a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland as the survivors, many of whom are mutants, fight for dominance over the landscape. So, not Denmark then.

Most people, I think, will know the story, but for those unfamiliar with it, Macbeth is spoken to by three witches who tell him that while he is already Thane of Glanis, he will soon become Thane of Cawdor and then later, he will be king. They also tell his friend Banquo that, while he won’t be a king, his descendants will be. After originally dismissing their prophecies as nonsense, Macbeth is soon made Thane of Cawdor, leading him to believe that what the witches said was true.

He begins to conspire to take the throne from Duncan and, egged on by his power-hungry wife, the infamous Lady Macbeth, sets plans in motion to kill anyone who may get in his way. Once Duncan is dead, he takes the crown. But in doing so, he has made many enemies, and the witches convince him that he is invincible with a smartly-worded prophecy. Meanwhile, he has started to see ghosts, and Lady Macbeth has started to go mad with the knowledge of what she and her husband have done.

It doesn’t end well.

Macbeth is rightly one of the best known plays, and I think it helps because it’s one of the shortest (2477 lines compared to Hamlet‘s 4024) and easiest to understand. It’s simply a story, I feel, of how knowing the future can drive one mad. The appearance in the story of prophecies and ghosts are taken as read, and they aren’t there to be questioned. While a lot of it is about men fighting and basically having a pissing contest regarding who is most powerful and who will have the best legacy, it’s arguably the few female characters who make the story what it is. The Weird Sisters put the whole plot in motion, and Lady Macbeth is perhaps the most interesting and recognisable woman (after Juliet, maybe) in the Shakespearean canon.

While I like the graphic novel format (plays are a visual medium, after all), and it made for an interesting take on the story to set it somewhere completely new, I think that the manga format works slightly better for the comedies. Which brings us to…

as you“As You Like It” by William Shakespeare (1599)

“As I remember, Adam, it was bequeathed me by a will a thousand crowns to breed me well.”

Before coming to As You Like It, I knew just three things about it. Firstly, that it was a comedy. Secondly, that it contains the “all the world’s a stage” speech. And thirdly, it involved a lot of trees. I always prefer the comedies over the tragedies and histories, and I’d chosen this one because it seems to be one, as I just demonstrated, that gets forgotten and people don’t necessarily know a lot about.

In this tale, we have all the usual tropes of a Shakespeare comedy – boys dressed as girls, love at first sight, sibling rivalry, a happy wedding-centric ending, and so on. Orlando and Rosalind fall in love and, while both of aristocratic circles, they meet once and then are split. Rosalind is banished from the lands of Duke Frederick, her tyrannical uncle and in an act of solidarity, his daughter and Rosalind’s best friend, Celia, leaves with her. Rosalind disguises herself as a man, Ganymede, and Celia becomes her sister. They also take with them the court fool, Touchstone, and head off into the Forest of Ar-Den.

Orlando, too, must leave his home or he will be killed by his brother Oliver, and he also powers into the Forest with his trusted servant Old Adam. In the forest, couples meet and part ways, Orlando writes poetry, Rosalind must not reveal herself to him, and Jaques, the most melancholic lord of the sixteenth century presides over everything, sharing his opinion and generally moaning about being melodramatic.

Though I actually sort of hate being the person who says this about Shakespeare, but it did genuinely make me laugh on a few occasions. It’s incredible skill that four hundred years later and in an old-fashioned form of language, Shakespeare has managed to write something that can still make us chuckle today. The biggest laughs come from Touchstone, the fool, and Jaques who was emo long before that was even a thing. I also adore the relationship between Rosalind and Celia, which borders on more than platonic from time to time, but is realised better than many female friendships in modern movies.

It comes to it that this might have just become a Shakespeare play that I really like, and the manga styling works really well for it. Again, the setting has been updated, this time to “an Oriental … post-modern city”, but like most of Shakespeare’s works, this could really be set anywhere.Well done, William, another cracking performance.

“Shakespeare’s Local” by Pete Brown (2012)

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Exit, pursued by a beer...

Exit, pursued by a beer…

“Robberies. Muggings. Fatal Accidents. Interest rates.”

There’s apparently something about the tail end of February that makes me yearn to know more about London. Two years ago, that focus fell to the city’s people. Last year, I explored the tube network. This year, I took a look at one of the most British inventions of all: the pub. It’s been longer than usual since my last review, and this is nothing to do with the quality of the book, but more to with troubling external issues such as work, illness, my birthday and a general recalibration of my life. But I’m back now, so pull yourself a pint and let’s get on with the discussion.

Shakespeare’s Local is the fourth book by Pete Brown, a beer expert who realised that by writing about it, he could drink more of it. I was naturally captured by the title, and then found that I had no choice but to buy it when I flicked it open to find a photograph of the pub in question: The George Inn, in Southwark. It wasn’t a pub I frequented, and still don’t, but I’ve drunk there a few times and always admired it. Brown is also taken by the pub that according to the National Trust has been there since 1677, but according to ancient records is much, much older. And so begins the tale.

Brown takes us back to the days of Chaucer and earlier to talk about The George Inn, only it turns out there aren’t a huge amount of records remaining from that far back, so there’s instead a lot of speculation and talk of other local pubs that probably did the same things as the George. Quite quickly, what began as a promised look at the history of a single pub turns into a history of innkeeping in general, London and in particular Southwark, industry and theatre. Only when the story catches up again to the late 1800s (when the pub was supposedly a favourite of Charles Dickens) do we begin to see specific details about the pub in question.

It sounds like I’m complaining, but I’m really not. Brown himself admits that the title is slightly misleading as, while Shakespeare certainly lived, worked and presumably drank in Southwark at a time when the George was there, there is absolutely no evidence to say he did or didn’t ever visit, merely a suggestion that, “Well, yeah, he probably did”. And, actually, that’s good enough for me, because while the book is a love letter to the George, it’s also a love letter to the whole of the Southwark and Borough area, that infamous den of vice that has now become rather fashionable and full once more of playhouses, as well as strange new buildings like the Shard and the Tate Modern.

The book deals with why Southwark and the inns there became so important (and it’s a genuinely interesting story), how they changed their uses over time and how the invention of the railway all but killed off the great pubs of Borough, leaving only the George standing, proud and ancient and full of history. Along the way we encounter characters we know who have a link – tenuous or not – to the George, from Pitt the Younger and Samuel Peyps, right up to Princess Margaret and Rik Mayall.

Brown knows he’s speculating on a lot of the topics, but his frank admission of this fact means you can’t really care. History is, after all, a lie that we’ve all agreed on (to paraphrase Napoleon) and he’s not pulling his suggestions out of thin air. Merely, he takes what we know about the other pubs of the area and applies it logically to what we can then assume of the George. Above all, Brown is a hilarious raconteur and a man you wouldn’t feel worried about spending an evening in the pub with. For what could be such a dry topic, Brown makes it work and brings it to life, describing with great colour the former festivals of Southwark and some of the larger-than-life landlords that have worked behind the George’s bar.

If you like pubs, booze, London or history, this is a book worth looking into. And when you’ve read it, I’ll meet you in the George for a drink to discuss it. See you there – it’s your round.

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