David Tennant as Hamlet at the RSC

Tennanthamlet2 I suppose I should write something about the David Tennant Hamlet (no point in calling it the RSC 2008 Hamlet, or the Gregory Doran Hamlet, David Tennant is bigger than everything), which I saw on Monday of this week. But writing about Hamlet, probably the greatest work ever written in any medium, and blogging, are rather at opposite extremes of a spectrum in my opinion.

The production is good. It is very much a "David Tennant vehicle" Hamlet, but he's up to it. He's most convincing, magnetic even, in the first half, where his long, lean and pale looks are admirably suited to the grief and the horror of discovery of his father's death. This Hamlet is one torn between the old ways, epitomized by the old warrior father, and the modern, epitomized by the pin-stripe suited, suave Claudius (downplayed effectively by Patrick Stewart).

David Tennant is best when conveying emotion, which he does very well, and when being intellectually playful; the relish with which he demonstrates his quick-wittedness and superior intellect approaches pure brilliance. Hamlet is a character of so many facets, however, that it is probably impossible for one actor to master them all. Tennant, for example, is too self-centred. He does not indicate to us, the audience, whether or not he's aware that Polonius and Claudius are eavesdropping on his "get thee to a nunnery" encounter with Ophelia, which detracts from the scene, the poignancy of her death and his later reaction to it. He is also not one of the most poetical Hamlets I've seen – but is very confident and natural with the lines, unlike some others.

I also take issue with the staging. We had good seats near the front in the middle, but too often, bit-part actors stood for long minutes with their back to the audience watching the action, blocking the sight-lines. I could not see Gertrude (the superb Penny Downie) at all during her moving speech about Ophelia's death, for example, and there were several similar instances.

The audience of course were ecstatic. At the end everyone stood up and cheered for a very long time. One enterprising person threw red roses at Tennant. Two of them were well-enough aimed to reach him, so he put one inbetween his teeth and presented the other, with a flourish, to Gertrude.

It was a good production, with the usual (for the RSC) excellent supporting cast, particularly John Woodvine as a (severely cut) Player King. David Tennant was damn good, occasionally lapsing into a touch of the matinee idol in the second half but turning in a sincere, committed performance with lots of physical action, revelling in his youth, pitifully anguished in the passionate Gertrude bedroom scene, full of grace and agility in the climactic final fights. London is in for a treat next year when the production (already sold out) transfers there.

RSC website on this production.

BBC review of the production.

Guardian review of the production with links to other reviews and Hamlet material.

David Tennant's website, explains why he is famous, adored by many, more about his interpretation of Hamlet, lots of pictures, etc. 

Maps of crime

Richard Akerman of Science Library Pad draws attention to a crime map (of Ottawa as it happens). If you happen to live in that fair city, you can use the map to see which streets are most popular with criminals. They don't really need to have such a map for Kingston upon Thames as there are only two sites for crime (two "nightclubs", O—— and The W—–), as well as the river itself of course which is convenient for dumping the bodies. (Three people who met premature ends have been found there in the 18 years I've lived here, according to the local paper.)

I wonder if someone could make, or has made, such a map for fictional crime?

However, as Richard points out about Ottawa's latest: "If this doesn't seem too novel, keep in mind that chicagocrime.org was one of the original crime map mashups, and it was only created in May 2005 (see In memory of chicagocrime.org )".

A morning in Tewkesbury

Tewkesbury abbey A rare event at Petrona towers is a weekday when everybody is on holiday. Such a day was yesterday. Having spent Sunday night in Gloucester and with the prospect of Monday evening in Stratford upon Avon, it was perhaps inevitable that we decided to spend a few hours in Tewkesbury, well known to us as the site of the famous battle and other events in the Wars of the Roses, but also by repute a beautiful town which nobody had any recollection of previously having visited.

So on an intensely sunny, late autumn day, we found ourselves walking round this lovely town full of mediaeval and Tudor buildings (well, there were a few teenage and grandparent-age Tewkesburians sitting around outside Blockbusters smoking fags and mooching or messing about, and a slew of mainly women with young children bustling between carpark and Tesco Express, but you get the drift).

One unusual aspect of the town is that it is built entirely on one side of the river – or rather, rivers – the confluence of the Severn and the Avon and site of unprecedented floods in the summer of 2007. The other side consists of beautiful water-meadows, thankfully a site of special scientific interest so likely to stay that way. At the end of our walk along the towpath and past the ancient houses is Tewkesbury Abbey, a magnificent church building dating from 1100. It escaped ruin by Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries when the townspeople stumped up £453 to buy it from the king – a tradition that continues to be relevant today, as the church gets no financial support from the church commissioners or the state. We walked around the nave and transept (yes, there are flying buttresses); past many hives of activity of restoration, repair, creativity and commerce (i.e. a little shop); admired the stained-glass windows; and read the short biographies on the tombs, of warriors who fought the Vikings to a succession of priests. The most famous person buried here is George, Duke of Clarence (he who was drowned in a butt of Malmsey) with his wife Isabelle (daughter of Warwick the kingmaker), but many other ancient knights, lords and abbots, including Edward Despenser, standard-bearer of the Black Prince, are laid to rest here.

Nevertheless, although lost in admiration for these brave souls, many of whom were hung, drawn and quartered or worse, my favourite alcove is a peaceful one, with modern windows of vibrant turquoise, yellow and green. This is the chapel of one John Reid, born on the island of Jamaica in 1756 and who died many years later at nearby Cheltenham. His epitaph put me in mind of a dear friend: "… having passed his days in the quiet occupations of retired life, distinguished for the goodness of his heart, and the mildness of his character."

Tewkesbury abbey: Wikipedia.

More on the Wars of the Roses.

Lessons learned from the 2007 floods.

Writers who improve with time

Willow writes in the rec.arts.mystery group: "As we all know, some writers do not age well.  Each new book represents a decline.  The example I use most often is Patricia Cornwell, who's [sic] first five books were good and then steadily declined. The last seems to be worst than the ones before. It is nice to see a writer improve. I did not like the first Kathy Reichs book.  While we kept getting them, I put off reading, expecting a disappointment. Recently, I returned to her books starting with "Fatal Voyage" and working forward to the newer titles.  A very nice surprise, the books are steadily improving to the point where "Break No Bones" is a treat and I am looking forward to the remaining titles."

I agree on Patricia Cornwell (James Patterson is a similar example) but not on the Kathy Reichs part. Or at least, not for the first four of her books which I read and then vowed not to read any more because the plots were so tedious and uninvolving. The trouble is, I cannot know whether the later books are better unless I break my vow.

I can't think of examples of series that predictably get better with time. Some I always enjoy, eg Michael Connelly (Harry Bosch), Robert Crais (Elvis Cole), Arnaldur Indridason (Erlendur), Helene Tursten (Irene Huss), Henning Mankell (Kurt Wallender). Others vary a bit in quality, not necessarily predictably, eg Harlan Coben (Myron Bolitar), Lee Child (Jack Reacher), Sue Grafton (Kinsey Millhone) – but are usually pretty good.

Career advice from Rifkind and Skidmore

Last night was the second 'humanities evening' at Cathy's and Jenny's school (Last year's inaugural event is described here.) Although it was not put quite like this, the evening is for students who "aren't scientists, mathematicians or linguists". Attending, therefore, were assorted lawyers, politicians, managers (eg health service, theatre), investment analysts, educationalists, journalists, publishers, a clerk to the House of Commons, armed services staff (RAF), academics, and others. Thanks are due to them for taking the time to volunteer to tell young students (age 13 to 18) about their lives and career choices.

Stars of the evening, so far as Cathy was concerned, were Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who gave the keynote speech, and Mr Chris Skidmore, a young (my adjective) historian and politician. Malcolm Rifkind is currently MP for what I think of as "Alan Clark's seat", that is, Kensington and Chelsea. Before that he served as a minister in several departments for 18 years of Tory administration under John Major and Margaret Thatcher, and before that was a lawyer. He spoke entertainingly and informatively about why he chose to study law at university – he was in the school debating society – and why he went into politics – both debating and law taught him to be articulate and to see both sides of a question. While studying as a postgraduate he went to Africa (Rhodesia as was) and subsequently taught there for two years, a broadening experience of the type he recommended to everyone. After his witty speech, he kindly stayed behind to answer questions and chat to the students, which he did very openly and amusingly. (I now know who is going to be the next US president ;-). )

Perhaps more appealing to Cathy was to see and hear Chris Skidmore, who is either 26 or 27. He studied history at Oxford, then embarked on a PhD, at the same time joining various political groups and networking compulsively (his fingers typed imaginary emails while he explained how he did this). He did various "casual" jobs, including one for Robert Lacey, helping the author with his famous (to us) "tales from history" series of books. Apparently Mr Lacey offered to introduce Chris to his agent, who signed him up. Chris was writing a book about Edward VI, so wrote his outline and sample chapter, which the agent took round the publishers. "After about 10 rejections" (not giving up being a theme of his talk), Chris won a contract and then had to write the rest, so gave up his PhD and set himself the task of writing 1,000 words a day. He said his history degree came in very useful for this purpose as he'd had to write so many essays – the process of writing the book was very similar. He's currently working for Michael Gove, Tory shadow education minister, and is now parliamentary prospective candidate for Bristol Kingswood, which is where he grew up. What made him throw his hat into that particular ring, he said, was when David Cameron became leader of the Conservatives. He could see the party was onto a winner, so applied to be "listed" as a possible candidate. He could not apply for the Bristol Kingswood vacancy when it first came up because it is an "A list" seat (?!), but the person who won that job lost heart in 2005 and resigned, which meant by party rules that Chris could apply. He was relieved to be appointed, not only because he knows the area but because he was previously prospective candidate for an Islington (central north London) constituency – not a good place for a Conservative in any event, and certainly not when the sitting MP has the persuasion and majority of this gentleman

In the meantime, Edward VI: The Lost King is doing very well, being chosen as Guardian book of the week when published in 2007. Chris is currently writing another book, this time on Elizabeth I.

The Likeness by Tana French, and other reviews

My review of The Likeness by Tana French is up at Euro Crime. From the review:

The protagonist, Cassie Maddox, is a detective working in the domestic violence department of the Dublin police force. She was part of the investigating team in Tana French's previous novel, IN THE WOODS, a story that ended in an emotional mess – a fact of which we are frequently but obliquely reminded in the new book, which is a bit frustrating if, like me, you have read the earlier book but can't recall the exact details of how it turned out. In between the two novels, Cassie has left the murder squad and worked undercover for a while, but after being attacked with a knife by one of her targets, she next transferred to the boring (to her) world of domestic violence, which is where she is working, somewhat depressed and at a loose end, at the opening of THE LIKENESS.

Cassie's undercover life comes back to haunt her in an unusual way when her boyfriend Sam (still on the murder squad) and her old 'undercover' boss Frank, a Machiavellian-like but charming figure, contact her to tell her that a dead body has been found in a dilapidated cottage in a field in the countryside- the body is that of a girl who is identical to Cassie and who is calling herself Lexie Madison, one of Cassie's previous fabricated undercover identities. Read on here.

I'm not sure if I will read any more of Tana French's books; it depends on how long they are.

Other Euro Crime reviews this week are Paying for It by Tony Black, Paul Blackburn's debut; Terry Halligan on The Art of Remonstration by Alan Miles; and Michelle Peckham on The Last Cato by Matilde Asensi – a quest for an Earthly paradise.

Financial crisis and crime fiction

"The case of Iceland, which in recent weeks has nationalized its three major banks, shut its stock exchange and halted trading in its currency, is by now well known. Less well known is the speed with which the Icelandic disease is spreading." So writes Anne Applebaum in the washintonpost.com. She goes on: "The banks of Iceland had debts larger than Iceland's gross domestic product, Hungary's finances were long mismanaged, and Ukraine, whose president just called for the third election in as many years, is badly governed. But the speed with which some of these defaults are happening, coupled with the paranoia inherent in the political culture of small countries, has led many to suspect political manipulation as well….Political instability will follow economic instability like night follows day. Iceland is not alone. Serbia, the Baltic states, Kazakhstan, Indonesia, South Korea and Argentina are all in financial trouble; so, too, are Russia and Brazil."

These are troubled times and everyone wishes they were different. Nevertheless, next year's crop of Euro and other translated crime fiction novels should be buzzing! Not only might we expect excitements from our favourite Icelandic authors (also pointed out at Crime Scraps), but, it seems, Eastern Europe, Russia and beyond as well. Not a silver lining by any means, but a small chink in the gloom to which we can look forward, perhaps.

Where I was yesterday

Isn't it nice when you go out and not only have a lovely time but on your return to the blogosphere you find your companion has written the perfect post about it, saving you the bother! Not only can you find out where I was but also find links to reviews of the production concerned and an interview with Ken Branagh – including a little about his upcoming role on TV as Kurt Wallender, Henning Mankell's miserable but endearing detective.

I am not particularly a Kenneth Branagh fan: I saw him onstage in London in his breakthrough role in Another Country, which dates both me and him, and in the interim have experienced many years of watching his rather self-regarding persona in various films (mainly) and the odd play. But yesterday, he was wonderful as Ivanov. The play is not performed that often compared with the rest of Chekhov's output (Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard and The Seagull are most often performed). And it is true that the play has some of the hallmarks of being an "early work". Nevertheless, the translation by Tom Stoppard is excellent and the ensemble work superb. As Times critic Benedict Nightingale writes:

"Michael Grandage bolsters his reputation as an actor’s director by getting fine performances from the (variously) ebullient, malicious and wanly affable topers played by Lorcan Cranitch, Malcolm Sinclair and Kevin McNally, but he’s equally successful at evoking a tiny, mean-spirited world where the diversions are playing cards, exchanging scandal and making anti-Semitic remarks. And the sum effect is so glumly comic you’re left wondering how Ivanov could ever have been dismissed as minor Chekhov." Cranitch and McNally in particular had the three of us laughing uncontrollably; but Branagh was truly superb, well inside the skin of this man whose irony, and tragedy, was that he was the honest person among a large group of pretenders for the accolade. The logic of his self-diagnosed condition was faultless, emotionally gripping, played-down and pacy. This is not a play with longueurs, thankfully. But it is a play with which those of us of a certain age, or at a certain stage in life, can identify, all too well. That is the genius of this particular author.

Sunday Salon: Best books that never existed

TSSbadge3 Which are the best books that never existed? asks David Barnett at the Guardian blog.

That's an easy one.

The obvious answer aside, however, many are suggested in the article and comments of which I've never heard, and a few of which I have (eg the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy which seems to be a Guardian readers' favourite.) Here are a few from the comments: Jason King's great "Mark Caine" adventures, including The Lady Is Ready; Frank Bascombe's collection of short stories and also Nathan Zuckerman's Carnovsky (would it be better than Portnoy's Complaint, I wonder?); The Life and Letters of Silenus, Nymphs and Their Ways, Men, Monks and Gamekeepers: A Study in Popular Legend, and Is Man a Myth? are all on Mr Tumnus's shelves in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe; and Camel Ride to the Tomb, by X. Trapnel, a character in Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time and The Doubtful Asphodel by Sebastian Knight, from Nabokov's The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, are two non-existent books I'd like to read, but Stanislaw Lem wrote a whole marvellous volume – A Perfect Vacuum – of reviews of books which did not, and in some cases could never, exist. There are plenty more suggestions, including the inevitable few from people who haven't (yet) got their own works published.

Apart from Hitchhiker's, David Barnett's choices (links at Guardian post) are: Necromonicon (H. P. Lovecraft); the Ficciones of Jorge Luis Borges; books in the library described in The Abortion: a historical romance 1966 by Richard Brautigan; The Pension Grillparzer from The World According to Garp (I thought John Irving pretty much did write that in reality, in a subsequent novel); and The Blind Assassin by 'Laura Chase' (Margaret Atwood).

Financial ups and downs

Henry Gee is pleased at the sales of his novel By The Sea. He writes that  "lulu has sent me my first tranche of revenue, a thrilling £6.27, based on my first ten sales. As befits this truly twenty-first century publishing enterprise, the money sailed my way by PayPal." Well done, Henry – well on his way to his first million.

Henry's raking it in, but for those worried about the world situation, help is at hand. From The Great Beyond: "Nothing is immune from the current financial crisis / credit crunch / liquidity meltdown / world doom. Even Nature News is not immune, as we’ve just launched our ‘Finance in crisis specials page." In The Great Beyond's 'financial doom' round-up, find summaries of what the world's media is saying about forest finance, food finance and university finance.