Book Review: Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell

Seventeen eighties Paris dealt with, it was time to move to back to stuffy old Victorian England, a land full of moral hypocrites and ridiculous notions of ‘virtue’ and ‘proprietary’. Against this background of moral tutting and church high-handedness, ‘Ruth’ the story of an orphaned young seamstress who seeks refuge in the arms of a dastardly upper class cad only to have him – or rather his snobby mother – turn her out, unaware that she’s carrying his child, is an astonishingly brave book.You can see Mrs Gaskell tightrope-walking the moral line, pleading with the reader to love and sympathise with Ruth, a sad victim of circumstance. Even the briskest defenders of the times moral code, would surely have wilted at the sadness in Ruth’s beautiful eyes, just as the characters who condemn this ‘fallen’ woman can’t stay angry for long – although by the time they get down from their highhorse, it’s a bit late.

As ever with Mrs G, the big man in the sky plays a starring role. I always struggle with these religious passages – the character’s ardent faith that seems to defend or even encourage the worst behaviour in people is so alien and – especially in relation to the ‘Christians’ behaviour towards Ruth – barbaric. Elizabeth Gaskell’s approach to religion was far more humane, and Mr and Miss Benson, the kind brother and sister who take in a pregnant and destitute Ruth, represent a religion that puts people above scripture.

Mrs Gaskell leaves little room for the 19th century reader to disapprove – of course to the modern reader the only thing to disapprove of is the terrible behaviour of the dastardly Mr Bellingham and his mother, and the blustering moralising of Mr Bradshaw, but at the time, a woman who’d had a baby out of wedlock was the very worst kind of ‘sinner’. A few stiff upper lips would no doubt have wobbled as Ruth’s goodness and gentleness help her rise from her sinful state only for her very purity of heart to prove her downfall.

A fascinating story that brings home the harsh reatlies of life in finger-wagging Victorian England and a sharp reminder that the ‘olden days’ weren’t all bonnets, the regiment and handsome men with large fortunes.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Pure by Andrew Miller

I’m deep in period drama mode at the moment, but before I skipped from Dickens to Gaskell I needed a break from the Classics but still craved a protragonist in a bonnet or breeches.

Set in pre-revolutionary Paris but written by a 21st century hand, Pure proved the perfect historical palette cleanser. The Costa Prize winning novel tells the story of Jean-Baptiste Barratte, a young engineer sent to Paris from rural Normandy to oversee the removal of bones from the crumbling graveyard and church of Les Innocents as Paris attempts to clear away its dead – and with it its past.

Despite, or perhaps because of, Miller’s modern and minalmalist prose, his 18th century Paris is as vivid as Dicken’s London. Miller doesn’t try and take us back in time with language of the past, but instead brings it to life with unfussy yet sharp observations – you can almost smell the rotting remains and taste of the death-laced food served to Barratte in his lodgings at the Monnards. The book races along – in fact, if I had to pick a fault I’d say there was almost too much drama, including some pretty violent and disturbing scenes. But it was Barratte’s internal struggles that play out nicely against the background of the graveyard works and the rumblings of revolution that kept me gripped to the end.

Suzanne Elliott

Yayoi Kusama, The Tate Modern

I love polka dots. If it can be polka-dotted, I’ll have it. Aprons, dresses, mugs, jugs – you get the idea, I’m dotty about polka dots. But while for me they are jaunty, retro, joyful and playful, in the hands of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama spots become angst-ridden representatives of her hallucinatory visions. Kusama – who at the age of 82 is still working and can still rock a pink wig – uses polka dots to express the hallucinatory visions that she’s experienced since childhood and the result is trippy, at times disorientating and always fascinating exploration of the mind of this prolific artist.

And standing in ‘I’m Here, but Nothing’ room where everyday furniture and accessories are covered with spot stickers, the humble polka dot is transformed into a psychedelic, mind-altering object. But it wasn’t all about the spots – Kusama’s painting were more subdued but no less transfixing while her Sex Obsession sculptures depicting everyday items covering in phallus might not have been pretty, but were certainly powerful. The final room Infinity Mirrored Room – Filled with the Brilliance of Life is discomboluating but brilliant – like being thrust into a polka-dot filled space. Which seems to me to be a like a pretty good place to be.

by Suzanne Elliott

Eifman Ballet, Anna Karenina, London Coliseum

Firstly I should ‘fess up: despite being a ballet fan, I know very little about it beyond fifth position. I certainly wasn’t aware of the politics of dance – I thought it was all tutus and pas de deux. But the (British) ballet critics are more ferocious than a really pissed off fairy godmother when it comes to Russian Director Boris Eifman.

In town for just two nights, Boris’s ballet company wowed the Londonberg sections of the audience (and me) even if the arts press were sniffy about the “ballet for people who don’t like ballet”. True, there’s no subtly to this Tchaikovsky-scored two-hour piece. Eifman has stripped it down to its very core: woman marries man, falls in love with another, everyone gets very upset, watch out for that train! The skeleton plot is matched by the narrow spectrum of emotion – there’s a lot of angst, lust and anger, but little in-between. But Maria Abashova’s almost-gymnastic style contortions were moving in their extremity and there were some fine set pieces. Eifman used the corps de ballet with great effect – the final scene where the corps become the train that Anna throws herself under, was, dramatic yet tenderly played. Not one for the purist then – but a passionate stab at an epic.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Charles Dickens ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’

Wittier, cleverer minds have already given the world their thoughts on The Old Curiosity Shop, so there’s little left for me to add other than Oscar Wilde’s comment that you’d have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at Little Nell’s death is probably the best review of the book you’ll ever hear.

For my part, I didn’t so much want to laugh through those final few chapters that set the scene for Little Nell’s death, as sigh with boredom. LN is so good she doesn’t feel human (Dickens intention?) and the heavy-handed English Lit student-friendly (something to underline!) symbolism would put even Thomas Hardy to shame.

So thank goodness that Little Nell and her tedious, spineless grandfather, despite being the backbone (if lacking one themselves) of the novel, are largely sidelined to allow a host of witty, compelling, eccentric characters to take centre stage. There’s the sinister, evil dwarf Qulip, the cold, calculating snuff-addicted lawyer Sally Brass; the thoughtless, but ultimately kind hearted Dick Swilliver (I loved those chapters with him and the Marchioness towards the end of the novel – he completely charmed the socks off me), and good honest, but not, thank goodness, too good, Kit who ultimately to each other that kept me turning the pages.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: Bingo by Edward Bond, The Young Vic

Despite the heavyweight cast Bingo, the Patrick Stewart-lead play about our most revered playwright’s final days, was as flimsy and insignificant as Shakespeare’s body of work is heavyweight and vital.

We know very little about Shakespeare the man, and we don’t learn much more about him from Bingo, other than that he was a curmudgeon who liked making snow angels, hated his wife and daughter and couldn’t take his booze.

An enclosure bill sub-plot carves its way as randomly as a landlord-drawn border through the narrative and there was a half-hearted story involving a downtrodden peasant woman who seems to serve little purpose other than drawing out a more human side to grumpy old Will. For the thrust – if we can call such a passive storyline something as dynamic as a “thrust” – of the play was the contrast between Shakespeare the playwright and Shakespeare the man; a man who wrote so eloquently of the human condition on the page, shows little sympathy or understanding towards his fellow beings in real life.  He’s an empty shell of a man, bereft of any real feeling – as he tells his daughter Judith (Catherine Cusack) he can’t even hate with any real passion. King Lear (who is alluded to in the promo literature) he ain’t.

There was a fabulously comic turn from Richard McCabe as a drunk playwright – Ben Jonson? – with writer’s block who alludes to “killing a man in a tavern”. But that brief respite couldn’t lift the play above the mediocre. You can always tell when a script lacks a backbone when actors resort to my theatrical bugbear – running on stage, to create a sense of drama and urgency where there is none.  And talking of bugbears – why did so many of the cast have such strange accents?

Maybe the ultimate message about this play was that is brought into sharp relief how vital Shakespeare’s plays remain.

by Suzanne Elliott