Review #1: Young Vic – ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’
A captivating display of the Southern Gothic genre; Tennessee Williams’ ‘A streetcar named desire’ was as exemplary an exhibit of dramaturgy today as it was in 1947, when published, this time at the hands of Benedict Andrews and Nick Wickham. Themes of delusion, desire, gender and so much more, were expertly tackled, along with the sounds and sights of the production that packed the theatre with an audience who were encapsulated for three hours long, by the tale that unfolded before them.
Vast amounts of credit must be given to Harry Guthrie, the production manager, who beautifully translated the spirit of the story from the page to the stage. During the play, the set rotated like a carousel (although this was a decision made by director: Benedict Andrews), and this innovative function perfectly mirrored the chaos that ensued and the unravelling tendencies of Blanche’s mental state that were spinning out of control. The performance utilised the same set throughout, and the compacted capacity of the apartment was very key in generating the increase in pressure and tension, between the characters, as the play went on. If we think of the characters as particles, the miniscule nature of the room meant they would collide with each other, both literally and metaphorically speaking. In regards to the lighting, Williams’ original script was agreed with in terms of the dim lights, which synopsized Blanche’s disdain for the truth, so in this sense nothing was dramatically altered for production, but an important factor nonetheless. When looking at production, Guthrie’s use of props can’t go unmentioned, as the thin, see-through curtain between rooms illustrated well how Stanley saw through Blanche and her facade, as well as the lack of privacy suggested in this place. All in all, you can’t fault the stage production, as it seamlessly matched the narrative, with all its features combined to create the complete atmosphere.
Moving on, Alex Baranowski was in charge of the music and sound elements of the production, and although the use of blaring rock music somewhat lessened the sense that you were in 1947 New Orleans, and marred that atmosphere slightly, the use of sound was largely effective here as it did it’s job to subliminally convey Blanche’s emotions. You could rightly argue that the aural features of the production were at their best when left unaltered from Williams’ original vision; the Varsouviana Polka plays at times when Blanche feels remorse or guilt for her husband Allen Grey’s death, and it’s haunting jangle left the audience in a trance, as they could see how it echoed her conscience and the fact that it played increasingly often as the play went on, beautifully foreshadowed her decaying mental state and all that came with it. Tickling the ‘Blue Piano’ right from the start sets the tone of the play rather nicely, as this, in juxtaposition to the rock music, generates the intended feel of the multicultural New Orleans, in order place the character of Blanche in a position of insecurity and discomfort straight away, as it’s nothing like Belle Reve.
Thirdly, choice of costume is always a significant factor in any production, so here we must observe the work of Victoria Behr. Once more, Stella’s skinny jeans and crop top don’t seem to fit the 1947 feel of the play, which in some ways detracts from the professionality of the production, however, again there is a lot to credit of her choices relating to costume design, so this is only a minor criticism. Stanley’s outfit stood out to really enhance his animalistic and simple character, where his ‘wife beater’ vest was rather comical in a dark way. His cheap, work clothes elicit a stark contrast between him and Blanche, whilst also showing off Ben Foster’s muscles to place him in a position of power from the offset. Blanche on the other hand wears lavish, over-the-top white dresses, as a false attempt to appear pure and innocent, while her general costumes seem to be much more expensive, and fittingly cast her under a somewhat snobbish light. It must be said that Mitch’s clothing was considerably smarter than Stanley’s, again, to demonstrate the contrast between Mitch’s more gentle nature and Stanley’s beastial qualities. Therefore, other than another questionable choice to try and modernize this classic, Behr must be credited for her brilliant portrayal of each of the main characters here.
Finally, the acting and directing in this version were nothing short of spectacular. As mentioned, Benedict Andrew’s choice to put a modern spin on this classic derives some of the wholesome ambiance, however his casting of the lead actors in many ways gave the play its boundless vigueur. Everything that Gillian Anderson did as Blanche was flawless; from her snobbish and superior walk upon first being there and looking down on the cheapness of it, to her marvellous southern accent and not forgetting her comical skills when required as well, in the way she devoured their liquor whilst maintaining an air of superiority still. Equally, you must credit Andrews for generating a cast wrought with chemistry, which is a necessity for a play filled with such immense sexual desire. Andrews certainly increased the pace of the play, though this is a positive element to it, as it keeps the dramatic motion in full swing for three hours, and never lulls in passion and intensity, and this is also partly in thanks to the wonderful actors. Hollywood star Ben Foster’s depiction of Stanley is perfectly garish and brusque, especially in moments of insecurity, which highlights the character’s low intelligence, while the way he slams doors and charges around the set casts him under the animalistic light that was so intended by Williams. Stella, portrayed by Vanessa Kirby, is notably more still than any other character, representing her ‘no man’s land’ status that both Blanche and Stanley attempt to win over to their side, juxtaposing Blanche’s frantic movements that illustrate greatly her restless state of insecurity.
Review #2: Stephen King – ‘Elevation’
Stephen King maintains his father-like status in literature, after having released this gem in 2018. This is a stand alone novel, so if you’re looking for something to transfix you for a couple of hours, then this relatively short piece will certainly satisfy your needs.
The nucleus of this tale revolves around a bizarre condition that our protagonist, Scott, has acquired. However; this takes him, as well as other members of this small town in Maine (USA), on a voyage of spiritual growth, whilst tackling more modern day social issues. If you’re a veteran of King’s work, then this story won’t leave you with nightmares like they have done in the past, though that doesn’t stop “Elevation” from being an utter masterpiece that’s crawling with literary prowess.
Personally, I found this novel pretty compelling throughout. I wouldn’t describe it as gripping, and it’s not a book where you’re begging to discover what happens next, however it is expertly written and was certainly never boring. The language utilised permits us to get fairly intimate with the amiable protagonist of Scott, whilst brilliantly portraying that small town ambiance that you can just imagine so vividly. Despite the fact that it’s not a nail-biter, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a very detailed and exquisite plot that unfolds over the course of the read. The illustrations by Mark Edward Geyer create a rather homely feel to the book, and to go with the words that make up this fantastic story, we have quite a superb novella on our hands. The only fault I can muster up is that it’s not as thrilling as one may like from a read, and is more mundane than some of his other work. However I don’t think this deters, at all, from the fact that it’s an excellent story with a strong, morally uplifting tone.
In terms of my recommendations, I would recommend this novel to anyone who’s looking for a one-off tale that captivates the imagination, whilst liberating you from the shackles of everyday life by allowing you to escape into something really quite entertaining. If you’re one of those people who is looking for horror, (like a lot of King’s work) then this probably isn’t for you, but to everyone else I doubt you’d be disappointed.
Review #3: Truman Capote – ‘In Cold Blood’
‘In Cold Blood’ is a sublime, psychological thriller of a novel. Truman Capote produced this masterpiece in 1965, at the age of 40, and the story still captivates its readers in a trance to this day.
Traically; on the 15th November 1959, “the rich and respected Clutter family were brutally murdered in the small Kansas village of Holcomb.” This sickening act is the true tale that Capote decided to write about, and he does this by altering perspectives from the unfortunate Clutter family at the start, to the two murderers (Dick Hitchcock and Perry Smith) throughout, and then to the detectives and folk of the village who wanted to catch this ghastly culprits. The case is laid out before us relatively early in this novel, but we’re taken on a journey of crime and punishment over 336 pages of superb description.
Personally, I found that despite the length of this book (being fairly thick), it never, ever became tedious. The way Capote crafts this novel is what I applaud most about it, because shifting between the mindset of the victims, to the murderers and then to the detectives, adds extra dimensions to the story that forever keeps you on your toes. Had we just had one person’s viewpoint for the entirety of the book, then we would soon get bored, most likely, and it would make it difficult to convey all the information, as one person can’t be everywhere at once and know everything. The expert description too is a key to what makes this novel a beautiful one, as Capote allows us to really delve into the lives of these Holcomb residents in the 1950s and 60s; we feel as though we too are on the run from committing a homicide, and that’s what makes this tale so unique and such a rousing account. Similarly, it’s difficult to emphasise with people who kill an entire family, although Capote’s heavily detailed recital of both Dick and Perry’s younger lives generates some levels of appreciation for how tough some people lives are, and how they feel entrapped in their own existence, like they can’t ever be free to do as they please and must resort to crime eventually. It could be argued that it takes awhile to properly get into the flesh of the novel, and there’s maybe an excess of description occurring, however I was satisfied with it for the most part and really can’t complain because it’s an enthralling tale.
Naturally, I wouldn’t recommend this novel to the faint hearted, as there are many incidents of extreme violence and upsetting occurrences, and if you’ve suffered anything similar in your own life, then please read with caution as this is a very real book. Other than that, if you’re after something dark and grim, yet veritable and stimulating, then ‘In Cold Blood’ is a perfect thriller that will leave you thinking for a long time after putting it down. You’ll learn things, while remaining intrigued over the course of this account that takes you all over the US and more. A stunning tribute to the lives of Herbert, Bonnie, Kenyon and Nancy, who were all untimely taken from this earth on the 15th November 1959. RIP.
Review #4: Pat Barker – ‘Regeneration’
A potent recollection of wartime horrors, Pat Barker’s ‘Regeneration’ encapsulates brilliantly the traumas of war. Written in 1991, ‘Regeneration’ is the first book in a trilogy of war-based novels, but can easily be read as a stand alone piece.
During the first world war, thousands of soldiers tragically suffered from shell-shock, amongst other mental illnesses, and were required to be discharged from duty. This novel takes place in Craiglockhart war hospital, Scotland, in 1917, where we’re made privee to a range of sufferings that real soldiers experienced as a result of their time on the front. It’s a melange of fiction and non-fiction, though the majority of this tale is what really happened, and incorporates the lives of the recognised war poets, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, under the care of Dr. W H R Rivers, a real-life wartime psychiatrist. The troubles that this profession brings are laid out before us in this 250 page masterclass, and it’s guaranteed to move you.
Personally, I would say that it’s the themes of mental illness, male relations and wartime expectations that make it such an engrossing account. The array of characters and situations that Pat Barker explores, is what keeps the novel both vivacious and entertaining. We see cases of nightmares, extreme vomiting, stammering, muteness and hallucinations amongst others, and it’s sincerely sad and sickening to discover what some of these men went through. Again, the troubles of masculinity are superbly depicted by Barker, in the way that homosexuality was frowned upon, father-son relationships were tense, and the expectation of men to be brave and give themselves up for their country only corrupted their sanity, making them ashamed of failing this, as they saw themselves as weak, in comparison to what the ‘ideal man’ was at the time. With this, ‘Regeneration’ can be said to be an emotional record of the time, but I think that’s what makes it distinct amongst a vast range of war-based products that the UK produces. The only real negative of this book is that nothing drastic ever happens, and that makes it somewhat less exciting than some other books, and there are moments that could be seen as tedious. On the other hand, it’s not supposed to be exciting. This is an insight into the lives of men in the first world war, and it’s their individual stories that put together such an intense and fine read.
Despite the fact that there is an abundance of books, television shows, films, plays etc that are based on the first world war, I would recommend ‘Regeneration’, as it stands out from the field of mediocracy, exploring a side to the war that is much less talked about – the pointlessness of it. If you’re someone who has a real passion for the war, then that’s a bonus, but even if you’re not that interested in the war, this is still a fascinating read, because the extreme psychological situations and struggles of these young men are gripping, moving and enthralling regardless.
Review #5: Steven Galloway – ‘The Cellist of Sarajevo’
‘The Cellist of Sarajevo’ is an expertly composed piece of fiction. Published in 2008, Steven Galloway explores themes of war, civilization and humanity, in this sublime stand-alone novel.
During this tale, we discover wartime Sarajevo as seen by four fictional characters. There’s a cellist who plays at a bombing site in honour of his fellow citizens of the city, a man trying to obtain some water for his family, an older man trying to cross a road and get some bread, and a sniper for the Sarajevo Defense Corps. With each of these enthralling characters, we see the pain and struggles of everyday life at this time, with the constant threat of death looming like tall shadows. The four perspectives are beautifully intertwined throughout, each one providing us with a great emotional voyage through tough times.
Personally, I found that this was a fascinating read, as all four of the main characters added something fresh and unique, and here the credit must go to the craftsmanship of Galloway. Arrow was the character I felt to be the most intriguing, as she changed her name to this in order to separate her killing, soldier-self from the innocent Alisa she was before. Her account is tense and invigorating at times, while demonstrating the conflict of character we may all have in a situation like this. The cellist himself represents the humanity that still exists in the city, as his sacred music holds nothing but good spirit, and is almost the heartbeat of the city at this point. Both Kenan and Dragan’s stories are captivating respectively, and I would say that they are perfectly placed to highlight the more ordinary people that are so sickeningly traumatized by such events; nonetheless, it’s a gripping journey. I think that it’s well written throughout, as I found that I could envision clearly the paths they each walked down, and the altering perspectives always keeps a novel vivacious and spontaneous, providing a more exciting read. It’s difficult not to sympathise with the characters depicted here, and the nature of their lives make it a natural flowing read. The features of this novel are taken from events that took place over three years in Sarajevo, so the fact that it’s all quashed into one month is, of course, not factual because that would be impossible. It is a fictional tale, which we must bear in mind when reading it, but as long as you’re not picky about the realisticness of a novel, then this is a stunning tribute to life in the Bosnian war. The raw exploit of civilization and humanity is enough to grip you firmly.
Naturally, after having enjoyed this book wholeheartedly, I would strongly recommend this to anyone looking for some captivating literary skill that will move you along the way. It’s easy to read, very entertaining and extremely well crafted, so I would think that it shouldn’t disappoint. If you have a strong passion for war and battle, and the realities of that, then a more journalistic piece may be better for you, however in terms of literary war pieces, this is superb.
Review #6: Martin Amis – ‘Time’s Arrow’
Martin Amis’s ‘Time’s Arrow’ is a gutsy, yet extremely intelligen,t novel that depicts the life of a nazi war criminal in reverse. Published nearly thirty years ago, in 1991, it transcends time and captivates the reader as naturally as death.
Over the course of this book: we live the life of a regular doctor living in America, who relays his life backwards to us, and eventually explains the dark truth of working for the Nazis in concentration camps. This stand alone novel is a very free flowing tale, and despite the fact that it tackles some morbid themes of death, murder and evil, Amis crafts it in a morelighthearted way, where the irony and kalma are on full display. A relatively short piece of fiction at 173 pages, it’s a great casual read that won’t commit you to anything incredibly long.
Personally, I would say that ‘Time’s Arrow’ is an enthralling read. It’s fast paced, constantly changing in time, and has slightly bleak themes that add flavour to this novel – all of which suit my palette. Masses of credit must go to Amis; this ambitious style of writing the story in reverse could have easily fallen flat on its face, however, he crafts it in such a way that perfectly plays out without a blemish. Nazi war criminals’s tales have been told before, but this ingenious idea permits the book to stand out. In addition the language vividly generates a true feeling of both guilt and shame at times, while some of the descriptions (in reverse) of the camps at the end of the novel are unbelievable. Something I particularly enjoyed about this one, was the fact that Amis managed to brilliantly convey both regular niceness with absolute evil. The juxtaposition between a doctor who has many friends, and appears fairly quotidien, to the differently names Nazi war criminal, touches on a really dismal side of the human psyche, where we can shut ourselves off from our murderous past and transform ourselves into someone normal. He’s capable of producing a protagonist who is fairly likeable and trusted by the reader, before unraveling a totally opposing side to him that sends chills down us, as we think of the many two-sided individuals that may roam our streets. On the other hand, it must be said that this novel can be, at times, confusing, and I had to re-read some pages a few times. Equally, I would have loved a more extensive account of his time spent at the concentration camps as a pure Nazi, s that’s where the flesh of the story lies, however it seemed rather brief in retrospect. All in all this was a fantastic novel that broke traditional literature’s standards, and told a great tale in the meantime. The only main fault is that perhaps the climax of the book was a little underwhelming.
Nonetheless, I would fully recommend this novel to anyone, because I think that anyone would appreciate its ingenuity, as well as its depiction of the duplicity of human beings. It’s short, snappy and entertaining, which is ultimately what we look for in everything we read: entertainment. It’s probably fair to say that you’ve unlikely to have ever read something like it before, so I would wholeheartedly recommend giving it a go.