Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Women Writers, Women's Lives. . .

Coming soon are three new biographies that I'm extremely interested in reading.
Once upon a time, I had grandiose notions of writing a PhD thesis on Storm Jameson (abandoned alas, because a gal has to pay the rent). I'm always fascinated by writers - particularly women - who lived through, and wrote about both world wars and Jameson's additional work in publishing and for PEN made her all the more fascinating to me. So I'm very excited about Margaret Storm Jameson: A Life by Jennifer Birkett. I've read Jameson's own memoir, Journey From the North, but while beautifully written, it's a bit coy about her personal life and doesn't focus as much on her books as this biography promises to.

I've dipped into Frances Partridge's diaries from time to time and have come across bits of her story as a minor figure in the biographies of Carrington, Lytton Strachey and various other members of the Bloomsbury Group. But I'm delighted she'll take center stage in Anne Chisholm's upcoming book, Frances Partridge: The Biography. I first heard about it listening to this delightful podcast from the Guardian, interviewing the indomitable Diana Athill, whose latest book, Somewhere Towards the End, is also on my to-be-read pile. At one point Athill talks about her love affairs with married men and mentions she is reading a proof of Chisholm's book. She admires Partridge's tolerant attitude to her husband's affairs and her disdain of the "geometrical approach to emotional relationships". This, Athill contends, closes one to the "tender curvaceousness" of life and love that is everywhere in the world. I love that phrase and as Athill acknowledges, "there was plenty of tender curvaceousness going on in that set!".

And finally, I can't wait for Nicola Beauman's biography of writer Elizabeth Taylor, being published by her own Persephone Books. There's no information yet on the Persephone site, but The Other Elizabeth Taylor is coming out in April, so I imagine one will be able to order it soon. I've read a few of Taylor's novels - Blaming, Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, and At Mrs. Lippincote's - and have several more on my shelves. In particular, I want to read Angel, as I just saw the movie version, directed by Fran├žois Ozon and starring a rather stunning Romola Garai. The story follows the rise of Angel Deverell, a poor girl with a vivid imagination who finds fame and fortune writing bestselling romances, but who lives in her own fantasy world, constructed like one of her plots, and face up to the reality that surrounds her, particularly turning a blind eye to her philandering husband who has only married her for her money. Ozon filmed it completely over the top - Anne Shirley meets Scarlett O'Hara - but I thought it worked wonderfully as a visual metaphor for the type of books Angel inhabited. And the costumes and make-up were incredible. If you liked Ozon's 8 Women, you'll enjoy this; it has some of the same - almost camp - humour. I find Ozon to be a very interesting director who clearly is fascinated with the ongoing relationships and resonances of the written word. I love his movie Under the Sand (the wonderful Charlotte Rampling plays a professor who teaches Woolf, trying to cope with the grief of her husband's disappearance) and The Swimming Pool (Rampling again, playing a thriller writer who escapes to a French house to try and write her next novel, but encounters more than she'd bargained for). Rampling also has a role in Angel.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Recently watched: Our Man in Havana. . .


Despite also being directed by Carol Reed, this doesn't come close to the brilliance of his Third Man, but regardless, there are certainly worse ways to pass a couple of hours. I'd never seen this film before and always wanted to, if only because of Noel Coward's appearance as Hawthorne. The scenes between him and Ralph Richardson are delicious - especially a moment towards the end when Coward is trying not to insert vacuum cleaner puns into the conversation. And I always enjoy Alec Guiness in whatever movie he appears in. Graham Greene wrote the screenplay, based of course on his novel. Good fun.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Dada, what did you do in the war?. . .

I celebrated St. Patrick's Day by having a bit of an encounter with the Irish, although a few countries removed. Last night I saw Soulpepper's production of Tom Stoppard's very challenging play Travesties, which imagines James Joyce, Vladimir Lenin and Tristan Tzara in 1917 Zurich. Joyce is working on Ulysses; Lenin is working on a book about imperialism and trying to get back to Russia and the revolution and Tzara is creating poetry out of random words pulled out of a hat and establishing the Dada movement. Commenting on it all is Henry Carr, who works in the British consul and has a tiny footnote in Joyce's bio - he took part in a production of Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, organized by Joyce, and later was involved in a lawsuit over the cost of a pair of trousers. Stoppard makes the most of this quirky encounter and inserts some of Wilde's best lines right into the context of Travesties.
Oh, the whole play is brilliant - non-stop verbal puns and in jokes about artistic movements, political schemes and some very poignant and observant bits about the war. Wonderful language to listen to, and I'm very impressed that Soulpepper tackled this play. It wasn't an outstanding production - in particular the weak link was David Storch who played Joyce somewhat cutsy - he reminded me of a leprechaun challenging his inner Lytton Strachey. But the rest of the cast was very good, even if their accents, alas, tended to roam all over the European map. The set and lighting were gorgeous and the director added a clip from a 1920s surrealist movie that opened the show very effectively. A great start to Soulpepper's ambitious season. I'm looking forward to their next offering - David Mamet's great Glengarry Glen Ross.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Woolf's Hogarth Press Books on Display. . .


Many thanks to the Woolf listserve which alerted me to this exhibition running until the end of April at the University of Alberta. On display are a number of books published by Virginia Woolf's Hogarth Press. Since many of the dust jackets were designed by artists such as Carrington, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, this promises to be a very interesting and beautiful exhibit. And perfect timing - I'll be in Edmonton briefly for work in April and will definitely try to drop by. The exhibition booklet is also for sale - just contact the library.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

I'm in a New York state of mind. . .

Just back from a lovely week of vacation spent in New York City - I hadn't been there in over a decade and I was so lucky with the weather (the city had a huge snowstorm right after I got back). It felt like spring - sunny and 5-10 degrees - perfect walking weather, and I pounded those pavements, let me tell you. Visited a lot of bookstores and museums, saw two films, drank a lot of lattes, ate far too much chocolate and pastries (there seems to be a bakery or cupcake store on every corner) and managed to avoid many Deborah Kerr moments by keeping my feet firmly on the pavement every time I craned my neck to look at an interesting bit of architectual detail.

I also went to the theatre every night and was lucky enough to catch the first preview of Blithe Spirit (of course I had to go!) starring Angela Lansbury and Rupert Everett. It was a fairly traditional production - lovely use of music, standard drawing room set (bit too much fussing with a small table that was not only used for the seance, but also breakfast the next day), and decent performances from all the cast. It was such a treat to see Lansbury on stage (there was huge applause at her first entrance and at every scene exit) - she played Madame Arcati as wonderfully dotty and slightly ethereal, getting big laughs as she eccentrically moved around the stage in her swirling velvets. Yes, she forgot some of her lines but so did Everett, and Lansbury hid it much better (it was a preview after all). The most solid actor in the cast was Jayne Atkinson who played Ruth and it nicely showed what could be made of that part - in some ways the most interesting, as it doesn't depend on theatrics. I found myself listening much more closely to her lines, than I have in previous productions. All in all, a very enjoyable evening, although I prefer the Soulpepper production done in Toronto a few seasons ago, which was more daring in its interpretation - the dead ghost of Elvira showed up in a striking red dress for example, instead of the traditional white or silvery grey. If I have one big beef with the New York Blithe, it's with the artwork used for the posters and the programmes (which I normally like to frame but I don't know if I can bring myself to do it with this one).
Ghastly, isn't it? It looks as if the cast is about to make an appearance in a Scooby Doo cartoon. I wish they'd had time to take a photograph of the cast instead of this silly rendition.
One theatre company that did it right is Roundabout's production of Hedda Gabler, starring Mary-Louise Parker which I also saw. See their poster here. I went in with some misgivings as it had received mixed reviews due to its modern translation, but while I can quibble with the set design and some of performances by the supporting cast, I thought Parker was magnificant and completely embodied the spirit of Hedda. She owned the stage and the music and costumes were terrific. I also sat (suffered) four hours of a rather dreadful Mourning Becomes Electra, saw one of my favourite British stage actors - Simon Russell Beale, along with an excellent cast - in Sam Mendes' production of The Cherry Orchard, and ended my stay on a really high note with a new play called Becky Shaw, written by Gina Gionfriddo. This incredibly sharp and funny comedy about complicated family dynamics, a blind date that goes horribly wrong and debates about how honest one should be in relationships, had me in stitches. The writing was just so fresh and clever, and it was well served by great ensemble acting and a very inventive and effective set. I will see anything in the future by this playwright!