Twelfth Night at Shakespeare’s Globe – A disco in the highlands

A few weeks ago, a couple of my friends decided on a whim that they were going to go to see a show at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London. Being so close to London myself, and having never seen a show at the Globe, I felt I could hardly turn it down. The atmosphere of the Globe is amazing, and if you are able to I would highly recommend getting a ticket at £5 for standing in the yard, which is what we did, and we thoroughly enjoyed the show.

The show opens on a cruise ship of some sort, and from the music and the dress, it is clearly Shakespeare with a seventies twist. This may sound strange, but somehow, it worked. Sebastian danced onto the stage in white platform boots and flared trousers, and Viola joined him in a sparkling purple jumpsuit. What’s not to love?

But then, as the twins were shipwrecked, it became clear that Illyria is only Illyria by name, and is in fact, Scotland. Duke Orsino, his court, and Sir Hugo all wear kilts, and Orsino dances to a song (supposedly of his own composition) with a Scottish folk music feel. The combination sounds bizarre, but it works so well, especially with the comedic ability of the actors.

The script was fantastic. Shakespeare’s original dialogue was peppered throughout with added lines, with exceptional delivery by all of the cast, providing extra comedy, bringing the story to the more modern audience.

All of the cast was fantastic, but there were three stand out performances.

Malvolio was played with such great characteristation, as Katy Owen made her own clear stamp on the character. I watched (and loved) her in the livestream of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from the Globe last year, playing Puck, but seeing her act in person was even more phenomenal. The energy she brought to Malvolio was unlike any I have ever seen, but at the same time it fit so well. Even the way Owen ran around the stage sent the whole theatre into fits of giggles.

Another stand out performance of the cast was that of Sir Andrew Aguecheek, played by Marc Antolin. The combination of the fantastic costume design of Lez Brotherston, the direction of Emma Rice, and the performace of Antolin, resulted in a character that no-one in the audience could fail to find amusing. Despite his interest in marrying Olivia, mentioned only a couple of times, he was clearly portrayed as a gay stereotype in his dress, his strength (or lack thereof), and his whole manner. And here begins my problem with the performance.

Despite being a performance for Pride Month at the Globe, featuring a rainbow design to demonstrate this both within the design on the front of the programme for this play, and the poster for the whole season, there seemed to be a distinct lack of LGBTQ+ representation. The play of Twelfth Night has a huge potential for LGBTQ+ representation in various ways. For example, Orsino can clearly be read as bisexual, in that he loves Viola whilst she is Cesario. This is played on a bit in the performance, but it could be done more explicitly in my opinion. One aspect with huge potential that was just ignored was the potential for relationship between Antonio and Sebastian. Antonio tells Sebastian that he loves him, but this is completely ignored. There is the great potential in those few lines to present a gay character that is not a male gay stereotype, but is instead just a character who happens to be gay, and yet the lines pass without note. Having said all this though, I must mention the performance of Le Gateau Chocolat as Feste. He was simply phenomenal in the role, and his vocal range was awe-inspiring.

The only other issue I had with this production was the use of the same actors as a sort of chorus, dressed in white overalls and t-shirts, when they were not themselves in the action, for example to pull the bed Malvolio was on around the stage. This almost drew me out of the performance, reminding the audience that this was a performance on the stage, and the actors were merely actors. When the performance from each actor was so amazing, it felt bizarre to see them in what was effectively a different role within the same production.

Overall, the performance was a joy to watch, save for a few minor issues, and I wish I could go and watch it again for the first time!

All That She Can See by Carrie Hope Fletcher: a novel that needed five minutes more in the oven

Carrie Hope Fletcher is not someone who shies away from hard work. It is clear in everything she does, working in theatre in lead roles in many productions, and making vlogs for her channel ItsWayPastMyBedTime on YouTube. It shows in her fans – she has amassed over six hundred thousand subscribers over her years on YouTube, and has performed in Les Miserables as Eponine, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as Truly Scrumptious, and is currently in the Addams Family playing Wednesday Addams. On top of this, she has written three books, All that She Can See being her second novel and third book, all whilst juggling everything else that life is throwing at her. As a result, I was more than excited to read this book, as the passion she had shown for it led me to believe that the same high-level performance would shine through in this aspect of her career as well.

Unfortunately, it fell just short.

All that She Can See centres around Cherry Redgrave, a woman who can see people’s bad feelings as monsters that follow them everywhere, growing when the feelings increase and shrinking when the feelings lessen. Cherry has been able to see these feelings since she was born, and using this power she bakes things containing the good feelings that people need to counteract the bad.

The book is an easy read – the plot is compelling, and I read it on holiday within a few days. I cared about the protagonist, Cherry, and what happened to her. The premise is fantastic, and Fletcher explores it in a very interesting way, through both Cherry and the other characters who have the same and similar powers as her. There are so many characters, all with individual lives and backstories, clearly carefully thought through by Fletcher.

The flaws with the book seem to come with untidy editing. The prologue and the first chapter seem surplus to requirements, as everything that is revealed within it is explained again when Cherry reaches Portsmouth, where the main portion of the novel is set. The characters who are Cherry’s ‘usuals’ are explained perfectly through their actions once Cherry reaches Portsmouth in the main portion of the novel, so the first chapter describing them makes it seem like Fletcher doesn’t have the confidence in her writing later in the novel, which she should. Also, once it gets to the main action of the novel featuring these characters, it doesn’t feel like there is enough time to have these characters to become ‘usuals’, and some of the things mentioned – such as Sally giving Cherry’s customers tarot card readings – seem to be forgotten. These characters being set up at the start of the novel, combined with the tone that Fletcher adopts in the portion of the novel between the first chapter and the sixth chapter, makes the action that takes place before Cherry arrives in Portsmouth read like backstory that is just being told rather than shown to us. Cherry’s backstory is interesting, so it strikes me as odd that it is almost dismissed due to this.

It also seemed that the novel could have done with proofreading. I was adding in commas as I read the book to make it make sense, and there is a character mentioned in the ‘usuals’ chapter in the list of everyone – Orla – who is not mentioned previously as all the other characters are to tell the reader why they have the ‘Meddlums’ (as the feelings are dubbed) that they do. This is a simple issue that should have been picked up in proofreading, but somehow it wasn’t, which really brings you out of the story as you’re trying to get into it. Granted, it is a first edition, and mistakes are made in first editions that can then be rectified later on, but these seem too numerous to ignore.

Fletcher’s tone comes across as quite preachy at times, but this seems to be more down to the issue of not having faith in her readers – an issue that I know many writers suffer from, as they want to get their point over very clearly. For example, when Cherry is talking to two women described as ‘charlatans’, Fletcher feels the need to specify that ‘”respect your elders” was something Cherry had been taught very early on in life, but as she grew up, she realised respect wasn’t something to be earned and sometimes wasn’t relevant to age or experience’. As this is surplus to requirements, it comes across as Fletcher using her novel to make a point to the reader, which is quite strange in a novel, and is quite disconcerting to a reader, as it almost interrupts the action of the novel.

The conversations of the novel also seem quite unnatural. It seems that the steps in conversations are lost, so characters are spilling their guts after not having known each other for very long. It is hard to feel compassion for all of the characters when they don’t behave like real people. A lot of characters with substantial depth have been fit into this novel, and as soon as they are introduced, you find out everything about them and their life. In my opinion, the book would have benefitted from either having less of these characters, or revealing the aspects of these characters gradually.

The action also seems slightly rushed, but less so – a lot does happen in not very many pages. More time could have been taken over Cherry’s early life, and the ending is incredibly vague, which may have been deliberate, but comes across to me as almost a cop out, not wanting to work out how Cherry gets out of the situation she is left in at the end of the novel. The book could have benefitted from being around one hundred or so pages longer, which I think would have allowed for the natural character development and the natural progression of dialogue and action that I feel this novel is somewhat lacking.

The thing I was most disappointed with was that all of these issues could have been sorted with another edit, so the main impression that I got of the novel was that it was rushed. Another careful edit could have taken this book from alright to amazing.

Whilst when considered in the context of the busy life that Fletcher is leading, the novel is amazing, when taken alone, it falters, and could have done with a little longer and a little more focus on it to achieve the great novel that I know Carrie Hope Fletcher is more than capable of.

The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave: brilliant inside and out

I had heard about The Girl of Ink and Stars many times from many people before I met Kiran Millwood Hargrave – it was Children’s Book of the Month not once but twice at Waterstones, (later going on to win Children’s Book of the Year), was a Financial Times Book of the Year, the British Book Awards Children’s Book of the Year, was nominated for the CILIP Carnegie Award, and was shortlisted for both the Jhalak Prize and the Branford Boase Award. Not only that, but many people I trust for book recommendations and follow online, such as Carrie Hope Fletcher on YouTube, read it and recommended it. And I, as an aspiring young adult author, really wanted to read it.

Initially, many other books got in my way. Naturally, studying an English and Creative Writing degree, I had a lot of poems, novels, short stories, and plays to read for my course, and these obviously took precedence. Everytime I walked into my local Waterstones, there was a lovely display of copies of the book, in windows or on the tables, and I desparately wanted to pick up a copy, but just… didn’t.

But then I met Kiran Millwood Hargrave. She came to do a guest lecture at my university about writing “children’s” fiction was inspiring, especially for someone like me who sits working on my young adult novel whilst my friends work on amazing pieces that sit nicely under the label of ‘literary fiction’. She was incredibly lovely, no pretenses that the process was easy as she projected the word counts of her numerous drafts to show how the first draft was never the finished product, frank talk about the effect of mental illness on her writing process and how she battled through it, and information about the way things are done publishing-wise either side of the pond. She also discussed with us how ridiculous it is that some books are considered better than others due to their genre, a sentiment I very much share. Needless to say, The Girl of Ink and Stars jumped up my reading list, and I bought a copy almost immediately. And I am so glad I did.

The first thing that amazed me was the beauty of the whole book. The cover itself is gorgeous, but the pages themselves are where the true amazement lies. Each page is decorated like a map in keeping with the protagonist Isabella’s dreams and her father’s job as a cartographer. The result is that every page feels like a step on the journey that the characters undertake, mapping out the unknown of their island. I’ve never seen pages like it, and I urge you to pick up the book if only to see the pages.

The only potential issue with a gorgeous cover is that sometimes the contents don’t quite live up to their presentation.

This book definitely did not have that issue.

The story centres around the character of Isabella, who volunteers to guide a search for her friend after she gets lost in what the people of her village call ‘The Forgotten Territories’. More than eager to explore the island and chart it on a map, following in the footsteps of her father, a cartographer, she ventures in to the Forgotten Territories with the search party, and finds herself facing a lot more trouble than she initially expected.

The exposition of the story is slow and subtle, revealing a world that is not too dissimilar from our own – after all, Kiran Millwood Hargrave does say that the places in all of her novels are real places, but they obviously feature some slight embellishments. The relationships between the characters are great – I particularly enjoyed seeing the friendship between Isabella and Lupe, as a focus on friendship rather than romance is so refreshing to see. The mythic elements were really interesting, and tied well into the rest of the plot.

The only complaint I have about this book is that I feel it could have been a little longer. As it was, at just over 200 pages, I felt the world wasn’t explored to its full potential. I would love to have seen adventures spanning over the whole island in depth, as there are some villages displayed on the map that are barely visited, only for a page or two, and some that are not visited at all. The world of the book was so great, it just seemed a shame to leave it at what felt almost like the bare minimum exploration, especially when the protagonist talks about how much she wants to explore the entire island of Joya throughout the novel.

Overall,  I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys fantasy and adventure, and wants to read something refreshing.

Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing – A multi-faceted novel exploring issues of the past, present, and future

Madeleine Thien is no stranger to awards. Across the total five books that she has written, she has accrued six awards and has been shortlisted ten times in total. This book, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, tackles the complex issue of communist China. Thien is no stranger to writing about complex issues as well – her second novel, entitled Dogs on the Perimeter, was about the aftermath of the Cambodian Genocide. From reading Do Not Say We Have Nothing, it is clear that Nobel Prize Laureate Alice Munro was right when describing Thien’s first novel as the debut of a ‘splendid writer’.

From the blurb of Thien’s Man Booker Prize nominated novel, you would not be able to predict how emotionally heart wrenching this book is. It describes the story as ‘a history of revolutionary idealism’, and from that ideas are evoked of far flung tales often featured in historical novels, that seem to lack a sense of personality – as a reader, you don’t get the feeling that they were there, more that the story is being reported by a far-off observer. However, the personality in this novel is so prevalent that the story created seems so very real. Due to the book’s historical nature, and the use of multiple time streams, you know exactly what is going to happen to the characters. Amazingly, Thien still has the ability to surprise and keep you guessing from page to page. It is in this that the book is differentiated from a historical novel – it is not about the historical events, but rather about characters that just happen to be a part of them.

The story centres around a young girl called Li-ling, whose English name is Marie, living in Canada with her mother. The opening of the novel informs you of Marie’s father, Jiang Kai, committing suicide, in a way that shocks both due to its placement and the detached tone in which it is reported. Shortly after this, Marie’s mother receives a letter saying that the daughter of one of her husband’s friends from his life in China is in need of refuge, away from the prying, ever present eyes of the Chinese government. When the girl, Ai-ming, arrives, she carries with her the key to Marie’s father’s past. Through the stories that Ai-ming tells her, the Book of Records that her mother gives her, and her own travels to China, Marie pieces together the story of her father and his friends, Sparrow and Zhuli.

Although Marie is the character that provides the overarching narrative to the story, it is the story of these three friends that as a reader you are more interested in. Sparrow is the son of a highly praised officer of the People’s Liberation Army, which led the Chinese Communist Party to victory in the Chinese Civil War; Zhuli is his cousin, ten years younger than him, who was sent to live with his family when her parents were taken to a re-education camp. Kai is the only member of his family who survived the collectivisation that occurred during the Great Leap Forward, and he lives with his uncle in Shanghai. The three of them are musicians of the Shanghai Conservatory. Throughout the novel, their friendship and relationships develop, as well as their roles as musicians in a communist society. As the party turns away from music, denouncing it as reflective of the bourgeoisie, taking their instruments, their music, their freedom of expression, and destroying it all, the three friends find their friendships tested, whilst they battle with their own identities and how they fit into this way of life.

One of the amazing things about this novel is the way that Thien ties the true events of the past in with the narrative. Ai-ming is fleeing China after the protests in Tiananmen Square and the subsequent massacre, and the novel’s climax centres around these same events. The land reforms that tear Zhuli’s family apart were seen across China during the Great Leap Forward, often sparked by findings such as that of the people of their village – they find that the basement was left standing after they knocked down the house of Zhuli’s father, Wen, and find various forbidden items, including books and musical instruments, within it. What happens to He Luting when his affiliation to Debussy comes under criticism as the Chairman of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music was so horrific that the Conservatory as it stands today is called the He Luting Conservatory of Music – although the latter fact is unmentioned within the novel, the denouncing of He Luting is the beginning of the trouble for Sparrow, Zhuli, and Kai as musicians. When Marie goes to China to attempt to find Ai-ming, who returns to China shortly after she gets her application as a refugee in the United States of America approved, Marie speaks of the issues of finding her due to ‘the Great Firewall’. None of these associations seem contrived, either, the plot flows naturally through them whilst highlighting the difficulties of life in China under the Chinese Communist Party, both in the past and in the present day.

These characters provide fantastic representations of the effects of living in communist China, and Thien furthers this through the conversations that take place throughout the novel between all of the focal characters and the people that they all meet on their journeys. The impersonal and almost robotic way they parrot their ‘Long live Chairman Mao’s and such, before any proper conversation takes place, contrasts so violently to the normal way in which the central characters casually talk to each other that the depersonalisation created by the revolution is painstakingly clear. No-one is allowed the individuality of talking person to person, they instead have to become simple carbon copies, all part of a machine, and all constantly reminded of their great leader and how fantastic their life is.

Whilst being a novel centring on demonstrating the history of communist China, Thien also explores the universal themes of love, loss, friendship, and identity. As well that, she covers issues very relevant in today’s society such as censorship and the plight of refugees. There was a recent report in the Economist about how the Chinese government has taken the internet – expected by many people from other countries to be a democratising force in China – and twisted it to their advantage. With the Great Firewall, as mentioned by Marie when she is attempting to find Ai-ming in China, the government now has the ability to block just certain pages on websites that contain keywords that they wish to restrict, and even prevent texts containing similar keywords from ever reaching their intended recipient. They can just delete them. And yet, this is not an issue that is talked about enough in our Western-centric society. Should we, so often vocal about the necessity of freedom of speech when it directly affects us, neglect to talk about the ongoing issue in China – and other countries across the globe – just because we don’t see it? Thien provides a clear platform for these issues within her book, bringing them to a Western audience.

Thien also masterfully highlights generational differences and similarities through the spanning of the story across multiple generations – though it is Sparrow, Zhuli, and Kai that we mainly hear about when the narrative switches to the past, it is Zhuli’s parents, Wen the Dreamer and Swirl, that we are first introduced to. There is no fear when they first fall in love and get married, but as the revolution continues, Wen is stripped of his land as a wealthy landowner, the rest of his family beaten to death in front of him, and him, Swirl, and Zhuli are reduced to living in a hut and farming. Zhuli is not even allowed to attend school in the village due to Wen’s previous status. After Swirl comes back from the re-education camp, to live with Big Mother Knife – her sister, and Sparrow’s mother, who Zhuli is also living with – she is changed, fearful and distressed by her experiences. Some of the discourse that she and Zhuli have clearly demonstrates the generational differences created by their vastly different experiences of the world. Yet Big Mother Knife and Swirl go off to find Wen the Dreamer, after hearing news that he is still alive due to a letter he gave to Sparrow, just like Sparrow and Kai do when they follow Wen’s advice to locate Comrade Glass Eye. The generations are divided but also united by their experiences of hardship and their search for answers.

Such a personal touch in the novel can only be created through the personal links that Thien has to the topic and her characters. Although Do Not Say We Have Nothing is not autobiographical, Thien does share aspects of herself with the character of Marie. For example, Thien has also lost a parent, and after she lost her mother in 2002, she went travelling, visiting China alone, partially to connect with her heritage. She and her mother had planned this trip together before she died. She said herself that her father ‘instilled an idea of China’ in her that ‘exerts a hold on’ her. Aspects of her life have also clearly influenced the novel in other ways. The issue of censorship of art is very close to her own heart, as she was a lecturer of Creative Writing at Hong Kong University from 2010 to 2015, before the program was abruptly shut down during Hong Kong’s crackdown on free speech. She wrote an article for the Guardian on this matter, in which she states that the move is ‘plainly intended to limit free expression’, and also likens the protests in Hong Kong prior to the clamp down to the Tiananmen Square protests, which obviously play a key part in her novel.

Moral, social, and political implications aside, this is also a beautifully written book. With the majority of the narrative centred around three musicians, music features heavily throughout. The way that the music is written in this book means that you can almost hear it, perhaps because of the vivid descriptions of not only the notes being played, but also the passion behind them. I had never consciously listened to Prokofiev before, but when Zhuli is playing her violin, ‘following Prokofiev up high porcelain staircases’ with the utmost concentration as ‘the notes chipped into one another’, every note serving to ‘elaborate this unending melody’, it was as if she were playing the violin right beside my ear. Whilst in a literal sense, the music cannot be heard, the music can be understood, and that is all that matters in understanding these characters.

The only complaint that has been made about this book is the dappling of Chinese words throughout. But these words serve to highlight the cultural differences and multiculturalism of the world. Marie has Chinese heritage, and to ignore that in favour of just accepting her Canadian side when her story is so interlinked with China’s history would be unnatural. The Chinese words extend the personal link that Marie has to this world that she is delving into – she is not someone looking for reports of the facts, she is searching for the answers that she so desperately desires about her father’s past.

Given the beautiful way this book is written, and the many things it brings to light and makes you consider, it is abundantly clear why it has received the critical praise that it has. Thien is definitely more than worthy of such accolades.