Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Heldenplatz by Thomas Bernhard

In no-choice economy class at the Arcola an empty adjacent seat is almost a necessity, so being told to close gaps for a full house wasn’t good news. It’s a tribute to Thomas Bernhard’s prose that the first half, despite its 85 minute length, keeps the audience spellbound.

Set during a right-wing resurgence in 1988 Vienna, the play’s contemporary relevance is very evident under Annie Castledine and Annabel Arden’s crisp direction
The linear lay-out loses some of the studio’s intimacy but it’s integral to the design of the scenes: servants’ quarters in a bleak apartment, a graveside disquisition and family gathering for a last supper. Rectangles are the play’s central motif, from the refugee suitcases in the ghostly prologue to the formal dining table at the end, when the final word is left to the Heldenplatz itself.

Major themes emerge in three scenes. The first is haunted by the presence of the recently deceased Professor Schuster, who has committed suicide by throwing himself from the window of the flat into the square. He is present both in his housekeeper’s eerie near-monologue, adoringly recalling his cold persona – a striking performance by the suitably bony Barbara Marten - and in the heap of identical black brogues that Hannah Boyde, as a fearful maid, is cleaning. His spirit seems to inhabit the wintry rays that pierce the fateful window.

As the Professor’s daughter, a strident Jane Maud, and his mordantly witty brother Joseph, played by Clive Mendus, talk at the graveside, the focus shifts. ‘My brother committed suicide; I went to Neuehaus’, says the arthritic Joseph. The merits of survival tactics adopted by remaining family members are considered – a vital issue for Jews in a society where anti-Semitism is rife. Bernhard’s portrayal of Austria damaged his reputation as a dramatist.

In the final scene family members wait for the wife whose sanity is on a knife edge, apparently only maintained in an absence from Vienna. Has the housekeeper, her implied though never recognised rival, orchestrated the situation? The gaunt Petra Markham makes a suitably tragic partner for the Professor whose ghost haunts the play and her final collapse to the resounding 'Sieg Heils' from the square makes real the suffering that motivated the Professor’s suicide.


Monday, February 15, 2010

How Would a Robot Read a Novel?

Even if the prospect of a free Literary Festival in London, followed by a drinks reception at the inaugural talk, hadn’t been enough, how could I resist the title? Might it signal the end of reading, like an expansion ad infinitum of The Readers’ Digest?

LSE Alumni clearly don’t swell the noble (i.e. poorly paying) professions. The New Academic Building in Kingsway is a palace of blond-wood, steel and plate glass. Surely the Champagne quality would match it.

‘Don’t leave any gaps! We’re expecting a full house!’ Marshalled by redshirts with military haircuts into the Sheikh Zayed Theatre, the docile booklovers fill up rows from the front, like Saturday morning picturegoers.

LSE was founded, apparently by George Bernard Shaw. This second annual festival, said stand-in chairman Tom Chapman was, ‘a return to the LSE’s roots’ and great results were expected. After the 2009 event then-Chairman David Hare went out and wrote ‘The Power of Yes’, now showing at the National Theatre (The Time Out critic says it sounds like a two-hour lecture, perhaps not so surprising)

The talk title should have read ‘What Happens When a Computer Programme Reads a Novel?’ or ‘What Do Social Scientists Look for in Novels?’

First, a social psychologist, a literary theorist and a novelist take turns to present a huge screen of colour-coded pie-charts (although novelist Robert Hudson refuses.) A text-analysing programme called Alceste had been fed novels like Moby Dick and The Da Vinci Code.

Alceste can’t read the text, only recognise ‘co-occurrences’ and tabulate frequencies of appearance, hence the pie charts. These show the percentage of religion-related topics in Dan Brown’s best seller or ditto whaling in Melville’s epic. I was waiting for the interesting part, but it didn’t happen, except when audience questions strayed into literary territory.

Novelist Robert Hudson approved the findings for his own novel. ‘The Kilburn Social Club’ was 50% about relationships, Alceste said, which might be expected from the title, although he feared it might come up with ‘football’. Considering the book cover shows a of a football pitch (it was on sale in the foyer) and blurb mentions a young woman who inherits a football club it just goes to show that Alceste could be a handy corrective tool for readers. Even so, the ‘co-occurrences’ needed interpretation, which was subjective.

To me Alceste’s major,even fatal, short-coming was that it couldn’t say whether a book was any good. There’s only one way to do that:just carry on reading for oneself. Phew! And the Champagne was excellent.

Monday, February 08, 2010

A Bibulous Tour of Belgravia

Declared fit after being confined to barracks for three weeks by a troublesome cough, I was more than ready to join friend and Westminster guide Joanna on what she called a 'bibulous tour', in other words a pub walk, in Belgravia. I thought it might be useful to know about some backstreet inns for the times when I'm stuck in the West End wondering where to get a drink and a sit-down.

It wasn't all pubs, though. Joanna stopped from time to time and supplied her group of eight walkers with interesting historical asides (and current house prices) relevant to the mews, churches and sidestreets around Eaton Square.

We learned, for instance, about the fortuitous marriage of Sir Robert Grosvenor, Marquess of Westminster. His twelve-year-old bride was heiress to an area known as 'Five Fields' which included most of Mayfair. His statue has him with a foot placed on a milestone as reminder that his family seat was 197 miles away in Cheshire. Talbot dogs that flank the great man appear on his family escutcheon and were familiar from the pottery versions I'd seen on sideboards. They remain as sad reminders of a breed now extinct.

There were more than pubs on the walk, and Joanna stopped in front of the house where Ian Fleming once lived, as a blue plaque denotes. On the way to the first pub I talked to a lively young woman who runs a business based on food-and-wine-tasting events.

The Star Tavern was the first pub, its interior both spacious and welcoming with a real coal fire blazing away in the grate. The only disappointment was the lack of hot drinks. 'We have no facilities'. Just in time, I stopped the barman from adding ice to my tomato juice. I noted the pub does Sunday roasts at a reasonable £7.95, so I think it'll be suitable for celebrating R's birthday next month.

The Nag's Head was tiny, with a two-foot high bar in the front parlour and a tiny space with barrels for tables at the back. Here the bartender was heard to remark to someone asking for tea 'We're running a pub, not a cafe', which saved me the bother of a query. I didn't have a drink at all there, but chatted to a woman who was trying to persuade Joanna to do a city walk for her customers interested in Maritime trade.

The best was saved 'til last - a pub that looked straight out of toytown, with a bright blue facade and a red senty box outside. Not only did this delightful pub serve hot drinks but the coffee came in a cafetiere with instructions to wait three minutes for it to brew. Now how could pouring boiling water on coffee grounds be too much trouble at the other places?

Here I talked to Tony, like myself a keen supporter of 'Liars League', a bi-monthly pub meeting where actors read out short stories, the best of entries submitted under a different theme each week. There was plenty of reading matter scattered about, including a magazine called The Belgravia, and an intriguing back room with pictures and banknotes pinned to the ceiling.

So now I'm all set to impress family and friends with my knowledge of Belgravia pubs. Thanks, Joanna.

The Star Tavern:


The Nag's Head:

The Grenadier:

Food and Drink Experiences:

Joanna's Westminster Walks:

Liar's League:


Wednesday, February 03, 2010

For A' That an A' That...

I wasn't well enough to go out on Burns Night, and it occurred to me too late I could cook my own 'neeps and tatties' and buy in a haggis from Tesco- not that it would be the same, and the friend with whom I usually celebrate was also suffering from a cold. Now she's 80 years old, it's the sort of thing that keeps her indoors on a January night.

For my own celebration I re-read some of Robert Burns's poems in a handy booklet given away free by the Guardian, part of their series of 'Romantic Poets'.

It was an extra bonus when C sent me a set of commemorative stamps. Her local Post Office still had some left over from the 250th anniversary

There's a special meaning for my friend and ex-colleague, married to a Scotsman until she was widowed ten years ago. He proposed at Loch Lomond when she was a student teacher from France. Like her a lifelong left-winger, he was a great admirer of Burns's humanitarian sentiments.

The poem I read out at his funeral was not included in the Guardian selection, probably because it was political rather than romantic, although for him the two often went together. It's an expression of his belief that wealth, fine clothes and position are not what make a person human acccording to his definition. The last verse of 'For a' that an' a' that' is curiously optimistic about the ability of men to recognise their common humanity and seems very apt for modern times. One can't help hoping it's prophetic:

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a' that,)
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an' a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a' that.