Monday, 28 December 2009

Of All Good Wishes

It's been such a long time since I last posted! December has been a wonderful, if chaotic month, but I wanted to tie up a couple of loose ends before beginning blogging properly again in the new year.

Firstly, I am ashamed that it has taken me so long to reveal my Persephone Secret Santa! I was so excited to take part in Book Psmith's project, but on the reveal date, December 15th, I was taking part in a pretend Christmas Day which a friend put on at his flat (champagne at 11am, full Christmas lunch, Pictionary, Gone With The Wind, walk to the pub, It's A Wonderful Life: bliss!) and didn't get chance to post. Since then I have been busy with end of year festivities in Oxford, followed by a trip to snowbound Amsterdam.

This was a wonderful visit which included Van Gogh, raw herrings, handbags, and an unexpected seven and a half hour boat ride back home across the cold seas... But it needs a post to itself, so I'll be blogging about my trip in due course.

But to return to my Persephone Secret Santa. My Santa turned out to be Simon of Stuck In A Book, which was particularly fortuitous as we are both based in Oxford. Consequently, Simon suggested we meet up for him to deliver my present, so I was very excited to be able to meet another blogger for real, as it were! We met up some time ago now, and I couldn't resist opening my present almost straight away, to find one of the Persephones I've most lusted after waiting for me: Tea for Mr Rochester by Frances Towers. I read it immediately, and it certainly didn't let me down. The stories are magical and eerie, finely drawn and cleverly done, and images from many of them have stayed with me. I hope to write a proper review shortly, and the book certainly deserves one. I enjoyed the book so much that, I decided to send it to my own Secret Santa recipient: Danielle of Leaning Towards the Sun, who has blogged about ithere: I hope she enjoys it as much as I did!

Thank you again, Simon, for such a wonderful gift, and to Stacy at Book Psmith for organising such a great event.

I am going back to Oxford on Wednesday, and from there to London on New Year's Eve to usher in 2010 in the company of some good friends. On New Year's Day, a few of us are going to see The Misanthrope at the Comedy Theatre, which seems to me a very good way to see in the new decade.

I'll be giving a full report on Keira Knightley's stage debut afterwards (although personally I am much more interested in seeing the excellent Damian Lewis on stage!).

I'll be back to blogging properly at the start of next week, after my return to Oxford, when I'll be filling you in on my end of year activities, and sharing some thoughts about what's occupying me as we move into 2010. In the meantime, I hope you all had a wonderful festive season, and that you have an enchanting New Year's Eve. A belated Merry Christmas, and all the best for 2010! I leave off today with some words from Sir W's 1601 essay 'Of Iustice', and hope that, although the season may be cold, it has also been one of

'Peace (the nourishing warmthe) by whose rayes, states stretch out their armes, and enioye a perpetuall summer'.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Of Steampunk

I am, rather naughtily, writing this at my desk in Duke Humfrey's, feeling in need of something rather less academic than a 1612 treatise on education to ease me back into working. I got back only half an hour ago from lunch with my mum and a friend of hers at Brasserie Blanc in Jericho. This is one of Raymond Blanc's restaurants, and although he now has a chain of them, the food is always excellent, and it is a good choice for when a trip to the rather more extravagant Le Manoir Aux Quat' Saisons isn't on the menu. (I have been to the latter twice now, once on my twenty-first birthday, and then for my mum's birthday the following year. Heavenly setting and, as you would expect for its two Michelin star rating, simply delicious food). Today I enjoyed some lovely mussels to start, followed by duck in a winter berry sauce, accompanied by some Kir and then some red wine. So you can see why I'm not exactly in the mood for studying, and am already looking forward to my trip with friends this evening to see A Serious Man at the Phoenix Picture House.

For now, however, I am casting my mind back to last Sunday, when, after a yummy lunch with friends at the wonderful Edamame, a couple of us went (via coffee and book browsing at Blackwells) to see the Steampunk exhibition at the Museum of the History of Science just across the road.

Steampunk is an intriguing mixture of old and new, as innovative artists imagine how modern technology might have looked had it been created using the science of Victorian times (I know, complicated). Thus, we were led into a zany, magical land full of objects that seemed straight out of a wonderful and darkly mysterious fairy-tale. This 'eye-pod' was one of my favourite comic reinterpretations of a modern classic:

I also loved the fantastical masks and goggles which are a common feature of Steampunk art:

I loved the Gothic look of some of the pieces, such as this intricate clock, where the machinery isn't hidden, but rather becomes an intrinsic part of its visual appeal:

Some of the workmanship on display was spectacular. This photograph doesn't really do justice to the amazing achievement of the craftsman in this creation:

There were some interesting fashion ideas, although I'm not sure that this little get-up would be quite my style:

This rather disturbing 'mechanical womb', complete with baby, was enough to make me think that pregnancy (which has always sounded a pretty creepy experience in itself to me ... hopefully time will change this!) might not be so bad after all, if this were the alternative:


Although it was also a little spooky, I did however love the dramatic look of one of the final pieces in the exhibition, even if I'd rather admire it in a gallery, than in my home:

The exhibition runs until 21 February 2010, and I highly recommend a visit if you're in Oxford before then. The Museum itself is also an intriguing place to wander around, but check out its opening hours on the website first, as they are a little erratic.

And now, I must turn away from the Victorians and delve deeper back into the past, giving at least a little of my time to Sir W and his friends before I head off to the cinema. For, as Sir W says in his 1601 essay 'Of Solitarinesse and Company', I do not want today's

'time to slide away without the memory of some good deedes'

alongside the recollection of my very good lunch!

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Of Life is a Dream

I'm playing catchup at the moment, so things are a little out of order. Hence, after telling you about my Saturday evening's activities in my post yesterday, I now need to backtrack to share with you all the delights of my Friday night's entertainment. I was at a conference about translation in the Early Modern period, held at St. John's College, on both Friday and Saturday. The talks were fascinating, but on Friday I had to slip off after the morning session, in order to meet up with my mum and catch the bus to London. I spent the entire bus journey in a state of High Excitement, for that evening we were first going to enjoy a delicious meal at one of my favourite London restaurants, and then we had a date with Dominic West at the Donmar Warehouse, to see one of my most highly anticipated theatre events of the season: Life is a Dream.

The evening got off to a great start with dinner at the lovely Mon Plaisir in Covent Garden's Monmouth Street. We were early enough to have the chance to wander around Covent Garden first, and I managed to pick up a couple of Christmas presents, as well as one or two things for myself (!) in between admiring the festive decorations and laughing at the street acts that crowd the piazza. Mon Plaisir is London's oldest French restaurant, and it is always a good choice for excellent but reasonably priced Gallic cuisine. On Friday evening I enjoyed a particularly good duck pate with grated truffle, before moving on to some delicious partridge. I was also particularly pleased to spy a favourite red wine on the restaurant's list: Bourgogne Passetoutgrains, a glass of which was the perfect accompaniment to my meal.

We were both too full for pudding, so skipped the final course in order to make our way around the corner to the Donmar. After having enjoyed my first visit there earlier this year, I was very much looking forward to returning. I was also highly excited about seeing the play itself, as I know very little about Spanish Golden Age theatre, despite the fact that I work on seventeenth-century English literature. Life is a Dream (or, to give it its original title, La vida es sueno) was written by the Spanish playwright Pedro Calderon de la Barca, and was first published in 1635. A little later than Sir W, therefore, but certainly well within my period of interest (even if I somehow seem to have moved away from studying any fiction in recent years!).

I must also admit, however, that not a little of my excitement arose from the fact that I was about to see Dominic West in the flesh, only a few feet away from me *swoon*. Regular readers may remember this picture of him from my rather gratuitous use of it in an earlier post, but I hope you'll excuse me if it makes another appearance here...

I have been a fan of Mr West's since my obsession with The Wire began earlier this year, and so I was really thrilled to be able to see him on stage. And I must say that neither he nor the play itself disappointed me.

The play revolves around West's character, Segismundo, a prince who has been kept ignorant of his true status, locked up throughout his life in an isolated tower. This is thanks to his father's belief in a prophecy which predicts that Segismundo will grow up to be a terrible tyrant, who will ruin his country and its people. At the time the play begins, however, the King has begun to question his actions, wondering whether, in attempting to forestall the prophecy, he may, in true Oedipul style, in fact have created the monster he sought to contain. The King's feelings of guilt lead him to give Segismundo one day of freedom, in which he will be presented with the knowledge of his true identity, and allowed to act as he sees fit. If he proves a just ruler, he will be given his freedom for always, but if the prophecy comes true, and he acts as a despot, he will be thrown back into his tower and told, upon awakening, that his day as a prince was only a dream. There are sub-plots involving wronged women, lost children, and various political and romantic intrigues, but the main focus always revolves around Segismundo, and the questions of free will and fate, nature and nurture, truth and delusion, sanity and madness.

The entire cast was excellent. To mention just a few: Rupert Evans (whom I had recently enjoyed as Frank Churchill in the BBC's recent adaptation of Emma) made a funny and suitably charming cad, Kate Fleetwood was a steely and vital Rosaria, and Sharon Small was at once regal and vulnerable. Dominic West, however, excelled, with his Segismundo being fiery, dangerous and cruel one minute, comically school-boyish the next, and pathetic and heartbreakingly confused a moment afterwards.

Ultimately, it is a story of redemption, of family, and of second chances, and I found the play deeply moving, as well as comic and exhilarating in turns. Helen Edmundson's adaptation zipped along at a fantastic pace, and I enjoyed her very modern translation, which was fresh and fast and funny. I left the theatre feeling revitalized and very happy, and looking forward even more to my next Donmar venture: Red, a new play about Philip Roth starring Alfred Molina, which I'm going to see in February.

My love of the theatre is something that Sir W shared, and in a change from normal, I leave you today with a couple of lines not from his Essayes, but from a verse epistle he wrote to his close friend, the poet John Donne (another of my favourite Early Moderns). The letter is preserved in a manuscript here in Oxford, at the Bodleian, and it makes me think that I'd have enjoyed a night out on the tiles with this pair. Or, indeed, an afternoon at the theatre, as Sir W encourages his friend to do here:

'If then, for change, for howers you seem careles,
Agree with me to lose them at the playes'.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Of A First Class Murder

On Saturday night I attended a murder. Or, more precisely, a glamourous French woman called Marie de Mignon lent her company to a sparkling evening full of good food, excellent conversation, and death, all compered by a little Belgian man with a waxed moustache who kept popping up on the TV screen. That's right: last weekend some friends and I put on an Agatha Christie murder mystery party!

The box set we used was based on the plot of Christie's The Plymouth Express (luckily one of the few Poirots I hadn't read, so I didn't know the denouement beforehand), and the eight of us each played one of the suspects in Flossie Carrington's murder (she'd been stabbed on a train and her jewels stolen...). The friend who organised the evening thought it would be hysterical if we were each given parts which required accents as far removed from our own as possible -- hence my transformation into Mlle de Mignon for the night. One of my friends was a Scotsman, another a cockney maid, Americans became Brits and vice versa, while the genuine Frenchwoman present became the haughtily English Lady Swansea.

I had great fun donning a blonde flapper wig and feather headdress, twirling a long cigarette holder between my begloved fingers, and trying to guess whodunnit...

We watched the introductory DVD in which Poirot (sadly not played by the wonderful David Suchet!) set the scene (you come back to the DVD at various points throughout the game, to hear witness testimonies and the like, and, of course, to hear Poirot reveal the killer at the end, when you get to see whether your leetel grey cells have matched up to his):

After Poirot had described the murder, the game began in earnest as we sat down in our allotted seats for dinner:

A couple of my friends provided us with a glorious meal of several courses, with such delights as pastry puffs filled with pear, cheese, and pine-nuts, home-made soup, and deliciously succulent pork belly:

The only downside was that by the end of the meal we were all too full to make the most of the wonderful cheeses on offer (oh, and the fact that one of my friends had a bit of a hard time making sure his fake moustache didn't fall off and become an interesting garnish in his soup!).

The game is moved along using script booklets and envelopes containing clues, which tell you about your character and what information you can -- or must -- reveal to other characters. Sometimes you're told to challenge one of the others, and at all points you have to tell the truth as written in your booklet, unless you've just read that you're the murderer, in which case lying is most definitely allowed! The killer's identity isn't revealed even to them until the very final pages of the booklet, however, so it can be quite nail-biting waiting to find out whether you yourself wielded the knife! I've done a couple of these murder mysteries before, and on one occasion I did turn out to be a murderess, which was incredibly good fun (especially as only one of my friends guessed; all the others suspected the nun...). As well as making sure you get in all the information required by the script, improvisation is also highly encouraged, which led to some highly entertaining conversations as we all enjoyed getting into character.

All in all, a fantastic evening, and I recommend such a night to anyone who's a fan of Agatha Christie, or indeed anyone who just likes dressing up in silly costumes and fooling around with their friends over a good meal and some nice wine. Murder is the perfect accompaniment to such foodie frivolity, for, as Sir W said in his 1600 essay 'Of Censuring',

'Death is the last relish'.