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Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Books - The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam


Star rating – 8/10

This is the second novel in a trilogy by Tahmima Anam, which fuses the background to the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, with the deeply personal experiences of one family against the backdrop of that conflict, and the subsequent divisions which it creates both within the country as a whole, and within the family itself. It continues the story from her debut novel, the award winning and deservedly richly praised 2007 debut ‘A Golden Age’.

The story is of Maya, her brother Sohail, and their beloved mother. The siblings have taken very different paths in the conflict, and we return to them here as Maya is coming home to Dhaka after being a doctor for a decade in the north of their new country. She is an independent and confident woman, who still wants to remain true to her revolutionary self; as opposed to her brother, who has taken the path of Muslim fundamentalism. Maya has little time for his faith, and rebels against it, especially where his young son Zaid is concerned.

Maya cannot tolerate or forgive her brother’s seeming abandonment of his son after his wife’s death in favour of his fervent religion. But she is not allowed to really look after Zaid or educate him either. It is only later on in the story that some of the full horrors of Sohail’s war experiences are revealed, and offered by way of an explanation for his behaviour and his devotion to his religion, and rejection of his previously held beliefs.

Anam again weaves a wonderful story, which tells of the personal journeys of the different family members, mainly from the point of view of Maya herself, and meshes that with a fascinating insight into the war that ravaged that country. It is deeply engrossing and powerfully engaging. But you do need to read the first part of the trilogy to make sense of the different threads that she is bringing together here. I only hope it is not another four years before we are treated to the final enriching instalment.

Gigs - Emmylou Harris - Bridgewater Hall


Star rating – 9/10

Emmylou Harris is back in the UK for a select series of live dates, one of which I am very happy to say was last night in Manchester. And if I am half as good looking and energetic at 64 as the remarkable country legend is, then I will be very happy indeed.

She has a back catalogue to die for by now, as a result of having 21 solo albums and many more compilations with others besides. And she is also promoting her newly released ‘Hard Bargain’ album, which contains some great songs, with a couple of uncharacteristically weaker tracks – more of that later.

Emmylou has a voice so pure and clear, and yet so powerful, that it soars effortlessly above her talented band, the Red Dirt Boys. She does seem to have a knack of surrounding herself with very talented musicians, and the three of the band whose voices we heard more of last night were also great singers too. And she obviously still loves what she does – singing country music and having a great time playing with her band.

There were great old favourites like the hauntingly sad ‘Red Dirt Girl’, ‘Orphan Girl, and ‘Goin' Back to Harlan’. There were songs that had you tapping your feet and wishing you weren’t sitting down like ‘Born to Run’ and ‘Luxury Liner’. And there was the inevitable homage to her long gone muse Gram Parsons, in back to back numbers of ‘The Road’, possibly the strongest track on her latest album, and the achingly desperate and empty ‘Boulder to Birmingham’ which she wrote following his sudden and tragic death in 1973. She is always happy to give thanks to him for the love of country music that he gave to her, but it could also be rather cheesily remarked that he also gave her broken heart, something that was a bit lacking before his demise, and something that all true country stars undeniably need at some stage.

Emmylou never short changes her audience, and last night was no exception. My only gripe is that amongst the great tracks on ‘Hard Bargain’ like ‘Darlin’Kate’ (a homage to her late friend Kate McGarrigle), and ‘My Name is Emmett Till’ about the rampant racism in old time America, she had to play the track which I think is the weakest she has produced for many a year, ‘Big Black Dog’. But I was even ready to forgive her this tribute to her canine pet, as she is as wonderful a performer, and just as great a human being, as you will ever see perform on any stage. Long may she rock.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Theatre - Macbeth - Liverpool Everyman


Star rating – 9/10

I have seen the so called ‘Scottish play’ many times, in many places and with very different interpretation being made of this great tragedy. But I have got to say that this new production at the Liverpool Everyman starring David Morrissey, in something of a homecoming gig, is up there with the best of them. It is the last production at the aging Everyman before it is demolished to make way for a shiny new theatre rising phoenix- like from its ashes, and they are certainly going out with a bang.

The set design is bare and stark, with the concrete stage floor having two great holes gouged out to form bubbling pools; and a huge concrete girder jutting out from on high. And the whole feel of the piece is positively chilling, with the witches playing ‘weird sisters’ to set the tone.

All the praise and plaudits that are coming the way of David Morrissey for his masterful depiction of the complexities of the character of Macbeth are totally deserved. He plays triumphal victory in battle; loving husband; murderous plotter; and his haunted, ill fated fall with equal power. But equal praise must be given to Julia Ford as Lady Macbeth. Last seen by me in the Royal Exchange’s Mogadishu earlier this year, the close relationship between the couple is intrinsic to the success or failure of the play, and this relationship is loving, passionate, intense and totally believable.

I was slightly nervous for Ford, having had only three weeks to rehearse the part after stepping into the shoes at the eleventh hour previously intended to be filled by Jemma Redgrave. But the lack of preparation time certainly did not show at all as she obviously grows into the part. Ford was every bit as commanding as her counterpart Morrissey, and the chemistry between them is exactly as romantic and loving as it needs to be to explain how the murderous plot to kill the king, Duncan, could be hatched and enacted.

There was a highly amusing cameo performance from Richard Bremmer in one of his multitudinous roles as the porter. And Ken Bradshaw as Banquo was great in both earthly and ghostly guises.

But this night was chiefly David Morrisssey’s. It is a triumphal return to his home city in a commanding performance, and his pleasure at and gratitude to the audience for their warm reaction to this treat was a very humble and endearing touch. Full marks to him; to the entire cast; to director Gemma Bodinetz; and most of all to the Everyman. Let’s hope that the new theatre, when it arrives, continues this fine tradition, but with slightly better toilet facilities.

Books - Great House by Nicole Krauss


Star rating – 4/10

This is a book that has received rave reviews, and which has already been nominated for numerous awards, but I have to say that it just isn’t the book for me. The style is very intelligent, academic even. And the idea should be a winner – four separate stories interwoven around the theme of an old writing desk with its numerous drawers, one of which is mysteriously locked, that figures in the lives of the different characters.

Nicole Krauss is something of a literary world darling at the moment, but for me the booked jarred, as it seems to be trying to be a bit too clever. I am all for books that make the reader work hard for their pleasure, and probably my displeasure is a reflection of the sort of book I wanted to read at this particular time, but hard labour and relaxation don’t make perfect bedfellows for me.

I did like the first story, of a brief romantic encounter between an English novelist, and a Chilean poet, who then disappears, presumed to have been murdered by Pinochet’s brutal regime. The next stories I found much harder to engage with, of an elderly Israeli lawyer; an American student at Oxford; and another elderly man who has just lost his wife.

Krauss writes some great prose in parts of the book, but it feels too much like some short stories, of which I am not an especial fan, pieced together by the mechanism of the desk. It’s a shame as I wanted to love this book. I obviously didn’t, but it takes all sorts and all tastes and it seems that enough people will disagree with me to make it a success.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Theatre - A View From the Bridge - Royal Exchange


Star rating – 9/10

It is such sheer pleasure to be totally transported by a great play, a fine cast, and a fitting set – and the Royal Exchange have hit the spot with their latest production of the Arthur Miller masterpiece ‘A View from the Bridge’. It’s a classic Greek tragedy in a way, powerful in its themes and poignant in the imperfections and desires of its characters.

Set in 1950’s Brooklyn, the sparse set it evocative of life for working immigrant communities in and around the docks. It is the story of one man, Eddie Carbone, and how his love and desire to protect his orphaned niece Catherine, leads to tragedy. His family is rocked with the arrival of two cousins of his wife Beatrice, who are coming to America looking for work from poverty stricken Sicily as illegal immigrants, and who are given cover and shelter in the small Carbone family home.

The acting is sublime, truly making the audience forget that they are watching a play, as they become immersed in the powerful drama. Con O’Neill is fabulous as the passionate and hard working Eddie. Anna Francolini excels as his loyal and loving, but increasingly exasperated, wife Beatrice. She tries to stop Eddie being so protective over his young niece, played by Leila Mimmack, as she wants to leave college to get a secretarial job in an engineering firm. He wants to stop her from becoming a woman, scared of losing her to the wicked ways of the world, and especially to the men who inhabit it. These three actors form a very impressive trio, with Brooklyn accents to die for, and an easy and accomplished stage presence together.

Catherine inevitably falls in love with one of the Sicilian cousins, Rodolpho. Eddie does not like it one bit. You can guess the rest. This is powerful stuff from the Royal Exchange, and one of their best productions for a while. The only gripe I would comment on is the accent of Ian Redford as Alfieri, the narrator and lawyer. He gives only a suggestion of an American accent, which is a bit disconcerting and breaks the spell of the production a bit. But otherwise a first class performance in a timeless classic play, which has humour, affection, wry comedy, great fight scenes, and bags of tragedy.