Book Review: Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan published by Vintage

If I was forced, at pain of being thwacked over the head with a hardback copy of War and Peace, to name my favourite contemporary author, I would say Ian McEwan.

I’ve been a fan since I was a teenager, when I picked up a copy of The Cement Garden, attracted by a tale of messed-up and cooped-up adolescents whose lives were ALMOST as depressing as mine. What I was probably hoping for was a British Flowers In The Attic, what I got was far better; darker and more disturbing, less sensational, more emotional, but stripped of any sugary sentimentality.

As I came to discover, McEwan’s powers lie in crisp, sharp prose, with not a mis-placed word. Like all great authors he can say more in a sentence than lesser writers can in a chapter. He never gets into a tangle of adjectives or sounds like he’s hurling long words at the reader in attempt to upstage you.

From The Cement Garden, I entered the even murkier, more sinister worlds of McEwan’s first two published works, both collections of short stories – First Love, Last Rites and In Between The Sheets. These were strange worlds, where women had relationships with orang-u-tans and fathers and daughters fought for survival in post-apocalyptic nightmare where lone tower blocks survived like cement cockroaches. McEwan’s late ’70s world made J.G. Ballard‘s look like an Ikea ad.

Over time McEwan’s literary landscapes slowly shifted from shadowy suburbia and grubby bedsit land to the professional urban middle class and love across the class divide in upper crust country piles. But while his protagonists moved up the class ladder and his settings became more aesthetically pleasing, there was still a dark heart at their core, pumping poison through Sunday supplement lives.

But my love affair with McEwan’s novels hit a speed bump with his 1998 novel Amsterdam. I laboured over it for weeks and over the years, as the memory of it became fuzzy, I came to hate it even more. I would tell people to read him, but beg them to skip his Booker prize winning novel. Was it reverse snobbery? Perhaps, I was studying for an English degree at the time and, like a typically smug undergrad, loved dismissing huge swathes of critically acclaimed works, much like McEwan’s hero in Sweet Tooth.

As the years passed the book became a blur of expensive red wine, white carpets and two middle aged men jabbing accusatory fingers at each other. Beyond that, I couldn’t remember much, the plot was lost to me completely, and as I continued to read and enjoy McEwan’s books (except Saturday, which I also dislike and which I should also revisit) I wondered what it was I so despised about Amsterdam.

So I went back and read it. And gobbled it up in one weekend. Because, of course, it’s great. Sure, there’s a rambling pile in north London with a wine cellar stuffed with expensive Beaujolais, but it’s a house whose heart’s been ripped out of it, where the composer, Clive Linley lives with his fading past, shuffling between unloved rooms amidst a pile of discarded scores and dirty wine glasses. Vernon Halliday, a newspaper editor and Clive’s best friend, reached his professional apex through sheer luck and his ability to slip through life unnoticed. They are not men to envy, and they are certainly not mocking you with their (un)fabulous lives.

The novel opens with a funeral, Clive and Vernon standing in the rain, remembering the coffin’s occupant, their former lover Molly Lane. Molly isn’t the only thing they have in common: Clive and Vernon are also united by a hatred for her most recent lover Julian Garmony, the foreign secretary, a man who Molly’s husband, George, would also like to see destroyed. This rain-soaked meeting sparks a chain of events that set off a deadly cocktail of grief, fear, hatred, passion and jealousy.

In other author’s hands, Amsterdam would have been an hysterical thriller, racing along at speed and hitting the odd plot-hole along the way. But McEwan writes with a precision that hides the true horror until it confronts you with its steely honesty. Seemingly inconsequential, microscopic moments that writers have a tendency to smother in heavy-handed SYMBOLISM, those spots in time that turn the whole story on its head, are told with less fuss than the description of the wine Clive chooses for dinner. These are the moments that drive the story to towards its fatal end, but it’s not until later that we – like the characters – come to understand the consequences.

I’m currently finding my way through Barbara Kingsolver‘s overblown Flight Behaviour and missing McEwan’s sharp prose. When I’ve crawled my way to the end, I’ll need to dig out my copy of Saturday and see if the neurosurgeon and his marble staircase can win me over this time.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre review: Othello, The National Theatre, London

Rory Kinnear as Iago and Adrian Lester as Othello

Five hundred odd years since Shakespeare died, and we still can’t get enough of his plays. You can’t swing a plastic skull without hitting a Shakespeare production up and down this sceptred isle.  Maybe it’s the assurance that you know what you’re getting, you know you never have worry about the quality of the script with a Shakespeare play. Sure his plots can go a little awol, some of his storylines are a little dated, but the man knew how to put quill to parchment.

With every new production, it all hinges on the acting and, to a lesser – though still crucial – extent, the setting. The National Theatre’s much praised production of Othello moves the action to modern times, opening with Iago outside a Wetherspoons-a-like pub, moving to a stark cabinet boardroom as the big cheeses of Venice discuss the Turkish problem, before the action turns to Cyprus where Othello is heading up an operation in a modern day British army base. (Confusingly, I think we’re still meant to believe the soldiers are Italian, although there’s little of the Mediterranean about this lager swilling bunch, especially as they’re dressed as, erm, British soldiers).

The modern day setting mostly works well, ramping up the machismo and exposing the volatile life of a soldier on active – and so often, inactive – service. There are times when it jars slightly; awaiting the arrival of Othello in Cyprus, it sounded incongruous hearing squaddies talking of ‘tempests’. Then there’s the issue of a contemporary setting bringing into sharp relief some of Shakespeare’s 17th century absurdities; this production certainly highlights Othello’s irrational, ridiculous, overly-macho behaviour. Why, why, why doesn’t he just confront Desdemona, or take Cassio out for a pint to talk things over? Why does he believe everything his friend Iago tells him unquestioningly? Why do four people die because of a misplaced handkerchief?

But in the final horrible scene when Othello has killed his innocent wife in a jealous rage, he says, in answer to Lodovico “For nought I did in hate, but all in honour” it reminded me that there are still two women a week in this country killed by their partners and the perpetrators’ excuses are equally as flimsy, and certainly less articulate, as Othello’s. And with recent ‘honour killings’ making headlines, “an honourable murderer, if you will” is still enough of a reason to murder for some.

As is so often the case, the devil gets the best lines. Iago must be a joy to play for any actor, he’s so wonderfully two-faced, so slimy, so magnificient at lying. All his talk of honesty, and boy does he talk of it, and the whole time he’s bringing down Othello simply by planting a few choice words into the Moor’s head. I think he might be Shakespeare’s best (worst) villain, he’s pure evil (“motiveless malignity”), he’s a ye olde internet troll – bitter, jealous and racist – with better lines.  You do have to wonder how he gets away with it for so long, surely someone must see through him. But then, in this production at least, he does have the face of Rory Kinnear who looks like butter wouldn’t melt even in army fatigues and a suitably military strut.

Kinnear is an exceptional Iago, but all the acting is, as has been well documented, immense. Adrian Lester’s Othello is as muscular as his pecs, his acting – in deed the whole production – is so physical (the NT’s PT must have been very busy).  Fresh from playing nosy little reporter cub in Broadchurch, Jonathan Bailey is brilliant as goody-goody Cassio, who could, in the wrong hands, be a little sanctimonious. In Bailey’s he’s passionate enough to make good look, well, good. Desdemona isn’t the most three dimentional of characters, but Olivia Vinall highlights her vulnerability and youth; she’s heart wrenching in the final scene as Othello looms over her bed. I wanted someone in the front row to rescue her such was the force of her anguish.

Othello is a bum-numbingly long play, but even I, who gets restless watching a YouTube video, was spellbound for all three plus hours of Nicholas Hytner’s taunt, passionate and dramatic production.

Othello at the National Theatre runs until 5th October 2013. There are still tickets available here

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: The Pride, Trafalgar Studios

The Pride at Trafalgar Studios

Mathew Horne, Hayley Atwell, Harry Hadden-Paton and Al Weaver in The Pride at Trafalgar Studios

When I last left the Trafalgar Studios after Jamie Lloyd’s production of Harold Pinter’s The Hothouse, I was still chuckling from the play’s sheer physical force of farce (I merrily ignored the final, macabre scenes, seeing only Simon Russell Beale and a large piece of Christmas cake). But after watching The Pride,  Lloyd’s latest in his Trafalgar Transformed series, my tears weren’t of laughter, in fact I barely made it out the door – such was its power, it had welded me to my seat.

I went into The Pride knowing nothing more than it followed the changes in attitude towards homosexuality through the interweaving of two different eras, one set in 1958 and another in contemporary London. My ignorance payed off; not knowing anything about it meant it packed an even bigger punch and made some of the surprises particularly funny (Mathew Horne in a Nazi uniform was not something I ever expected to see, let alone find it hilarious – you have to trust me on this one).

I was right about one thing, the story is about a couple – Oliver and Philip – whose lives are mirrored (literary thanks to a clever and rather beautiful set design) across five decades. The play opens in 1958 in the home of Philip (Harry Hadden-Paton) and his wife Sylvia (Hayley Atwell) who has invited her boss, writer Oliver (Al Weaver) out to dinner with them. Suspecting her husband is shielding a side of him from her and the world, Sylvia has contrived the whole meeting and claims not to be surprised when the two men embark on a, then illegal, affair that has far reaching and heartbreaking consequences for all three of them.

Fast forward 55 years and a contemporary version of Philip and Oliver are in the middle of a messy break-up thanks to Ollie’s addiction to anonymous sex (this is where the Nazi uniform comes it). Their lives are in so many ways easier than their mirrored images, but society still hasn’t freed them from the chains of lazy stereotyping and off-the-cuff ignorance that can be just as damaging.

Writer Alexi Kaye Campbell’s taunt script swings violently from trivial and funny to ferocious and heart-wrenching. He allows us to acknowledge and appreciate how much has changed for homosexuals in this country in the past half a century, but we’re not allowed to rest on our smug 21st Century laurels, a point highlighted in the curtain call when the cast bring out placards bearing the slogan “To Russia, With Love”. Atwell’s modern Sylvia delivers a pitch perfect speech as her and Ollie settle down to watch Gay Pride in the play’s final scene about the darker, less obvious undertones that build stereotypes – “tell you who you should be”- that are knocked down by those that make them.

The Pride is as powerful a piece of theatre as I’ve seen for a long time. Theatre, for all its intimacy, can feel cold and sterile, its hyper-artificiality diluting the intensity and emotions. But The Pride has a real humanness to it, it’s all too believable. It’s cry-with-laughter movements segue into gut-wrenchingly sad scenes. It’s terrifying, tender, brutal, brave and honest. But while it’s an important play, it doesn’t take itself too seriously and the brilliant acting helps contain any amateur dramatic trip wires that the script may contain.

The actors were all on blistering form. Al Weaver as Oliver was particularly moving, inhabiting his meek ancient Greek loving 1950s Oliver with a sweetness and hope, while he tempered the flippancy of his modern Ollie’s campness with a sadness and a genuine desire to grow out of his lost boy past. Hadden-Paton was perhaps more at home in 1958, but his sensible 21st century incarnation was a nice foil to Ollie’s hysteria. And we all know Hayley Atwell can act the tea dress off a period piece as if she were born wearing Chanel Rouge, but she played her sweary modern day Sylvia with a deft lightness of touch that made her the perfect (potty) mouthpiece for a generation.

For more information and tickets visit www.thepridewestend.com.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

Beautiful Ruins by Jess WalterBreaking down the literary forth wall and introducing real life people, especially those who have existed within living memory, into a fictional landscape can be toe-curling and jarring. No author could ever capture a well-known person exactly how all others imagine them to be and these interlopers can seem less believable than their fictional friends. 

Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins (named after a description of a boozed-ravaged Richard Burton not long before he died) spin on the real-life events of the second-attempt at filming Cleopatra when rain, money and rows had moved the production from England to Italy. The film’s stars play parts in Beautiful RuinsElizabeth Taylor‘s role is entirely off-page, but Burton not only has a walk-on part, but is a key plot device. He makes a wobbly cameo that somewhat scars this otherwise cracking yarn, the charismatic Welshman reduced to an embarrassing drunk who’ll tell his story, or at least those bits Walter could find on Wikipedia, to the nearest minion.

Burton’s appearance is one of a few wrong turns that stop Beautiful Ruins being truly great.  It’s an intelligent holiday read with literary aspirations, but it’s too timid to make that leap from beach to Booker. The plot is well crafted and compelling and when it’s in full swing it’s engrossing, but there are moments of self-consciousness, especially during the chapter where the story skips across to London. Walter, who is undoubtedly an excellent and accomplished author who writes with spirit and humour, includes some beautiful descriptions of London’s schizophrenic architecture, but his words never really catch its essence. For all his perfectly placed adjectives, Walter never found its heart. The same can be said for his Richard Burton moment – the actor’s appearance felt like a novel hijack by a Burton-impersonator.

The odd stumbles aside, Beautiful Ruins is a charming book that sweeps across continents and decades, with, love, in its many guises, fuelling its journey. The novel opens in 1962 in a scraggy Italian village on the Lingurian coast that’s frozen in time. Young, blue-eyed Italian hotelier Pasquale Tursi watches as one of the island’s gnarly old fisherman deliver a beautiful, and apparently dying, American actress called Dee Moray onto his island and into his life. Her initial diagnoses turns out to be wrong; she doesn’t have cancer, but the real reason for her exile on this funny little cliff-face of Italy has just as wide-reaching an impact on Dee, and those around her.

Along the way we’re taken to contemporary Hollywood, Idaho, 1970s Seattle, 21st century London and Edinburgh and 1940s war-torn Italy. We’re introduced to a cast of characters that includes coke addicts, porn addicts, war veterans, ruthless Hollywood producers, failed rock stars, Italian fisherman and legendary film stars. Obviously more at home in California and Italy, Walter conjurers up these worlds wonderfully; you can see the red tinged horizon as the sun sets over the Ligurian Sea, feel the sea salt in your hair, taste LA’s pollution in your lungs  and feel Hollywood’s relentless energy.

It’s romantic – borderline sentimental – warm and funny. The characters are varied and well-drawn, especially the ‘bad guy’, producer Michael Deane whose plastic face and ruthlessness have made him rich, but who’s now a failure and an embarrassment in the town that made him big. He’s psychopathic lack of compassion and empathy makes him hugely entertaining, especially next to the rather feeble Dee Moray (a Lidl Marilyn Monroe) and love-sick Pasquale.

Beautiful Ruins may not be the book it could have been, but it’s an engaging, satisfying tale of love and lost, romance and regret.

by Suzanne Elliott