Book Review: Stoner by John Williams

Stoner by John Williams

Stoner by John Williams

It’s easy to believe we get to read, to hear and to see the very best, that only the skimmed off brilliance is left as the cultural entails sink into oblivion. But you only have to look back at history and then around you at the piles of candy-floss coloured novels stacked on supermarket shelves to know that talent doesn’t always win out. Luck and circumstances have as much an impact on so many cultural success stories as talent – too often the book, the song, the painting just don’t chime with the zeitgeist.

Stoner by John Williams was published in 1965 to a reaction that hasn’t, as far as I know, been recorded. A tutor in literature and the craft of writing at the University of Denver, Stoner was Williams’ third novel (he also had a book of poetry published in 1949). Stoner may or may not have won the hearts of the critics in his own time, but it certainly didn’t capture the imagination  of his contemporaries or storm the New York Times book chart and the novel slipped into the great book perjury in the sky only to be resurrected by Ian McEwan who name checked it in a Radio 4 show earlier this year, describing it as a “beautiful novel… a marvellous discovery for everyone who loves literature”. As one of the literary world’s few superstars, McEwan’s rapturous praise got his fans and the larger publishing world very excited, and the book was republished by Vintage weeks later to ride this belated enthusiasm.

The book is about the life of a man named William Stoner, the son of a farmer who discovers Shakespeare during supplementary studies in literature taught by the enigmatic Archer Sloane while reading agriculture at the University of Columbia. Stoner’s slow understanding of Shakespeare’s 73rd Sonnet (“That time of year thou mayst in me behold…”) changes his life forever, as he is finally brought to life by literature, admittedly in his own unassuming way.

Stoner’s new found thirst for literature leads him from student to teacher at the same university, where he attempts to pass on his own love and enthusiasm for the subject to non-plussed adolescents. When he doesn’t have his nose in a book, he gets married to the wrong woman, has a daughter, an affair and a career-damaging fallout with another university lecturer. And, that’s pretty much it.

Although, it’s so much more than that. This man’s quiet life is taken to new heights by the beauty of Williams’ writing and his understanding of the human condition. He’s able to fill the pages with waves of emotion and so much heart while saying very little. There’s a terrible sadness that runs through Stoner, the novel and Stoner the man, that is truly heartbreaking in its ordinariness. It’s easy to see why McEwan is a fan, there’s the same sparseness and economy of words that evoke a world more fully than many who try much harder; a coldness and detachment that creates so much heat and emotion. 

If there’s a fault with Stoner, it lies with the depiction of his wife Edith, a battle axe of the kind we’ve seen so many times before – running round the house with a metaphorical rolling pin, ruining her poor husband’s life. I was uneasy with her, and didn’t know whether I was meant to read her as a pinafored-tyrant, or, as I choose to view her, as a victim of her era, her sex and her class. She is as much a pawn in this game of life as Stoner is, more so in fact – as a man he holds enough power to stamp on Edith’s dreams, to whisk her off into matrimonial hell just as she was due to embark on a tour of Europe with her aunt. To me, Edith was clearly suffering from depression that grew worse after the birth of their daughter, the unfortunate Grace who didn’t stand a chance between her mentally ill mother and her mute, emotionally detached father. They are none of them winners. 

Stoner is a flawed man, an unexciting man, but one whose story is as thrilling as James Bond’s thanks to Williams’ perfect prose. McEwan was absolutely right to describe it as a “marvellous discovery” for people who love reading; if books make up the fabric of who you are, it’s such a treat to see that same experience recreated in novels. To be reading about the joys of reading is like some kind of meta-warm word bath. 

 by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre review: Henry VI, Part 1, Shakespeare’s Globe, London

Henry VI, Part 1 Shakespeare's Globe

Graham Butler as Henry VI in Henry VI, Part 1 at Shakespeare’s Globe

Henry VI, Part 1 is according to, ahem, Wikipedia, considered by those that know, to be Shakespeare’s ‘worst’ play. Of course, these things are relative. When you’re a genius, your worst tends to still be rather good. Shakespeare wrote 1, Henry VI in collaboration with Thomas Nashe (again, thanks Wiki) and despite its lack of poetry and some rather clunky rhyming couplets (exaggerated for comic effect at one point by Nigel Hastings as a hugely entertaining Duke of Burgundy when he highlights the awkwardness of the line, ‘Who craves a parley with the Burgundy’, we’ll blame Thomas for that one), it still beats an episode of EastEnders.

What it lacks in finesse, Henry VI, Part 1, the first part of an unofficial trilogy, makes up for with some kickass characters and some significant historical ground zeros. Unfortunately, the first of the big names arrives in a coffin as the play begins with the funeral of scourge of the French, Henry V. One of the many great things about Shakespeare’s Globe is its intimacy, especially for the groundlings who often find ourselves standing face-to-face with a distraught Talbot or shuffling out of the way of a soldier brandishing a plastic sword. This production opens with Henry’s funeral procession that walks slowly through the crowd as Mary Doherty as Queen Margaret, sings a haunting melody. It’s hugely affecting, you are as much a mourner as an audience member as we make way for the black coffin. The fall of the great king and the consequences of his early death are reflected in the youth and bewilderment of his son (play with a touching vulnerability by Graham Butler) who follows the coffin onto the stage and spends most of the first half reading a book, his chin wobbling in fear as his father’s legacy unravels in front of his innocent eyes.

There are more lively famous people from history stealing Harry 6’s thunder including car park internee Richard III’s father, Richard Plantagenet, who later becomes Duke of York played by Brendan O’Hea who was leek fan Fluellen in last year’s Globe’s Henry V and still retains that hint of engaging campness. Then there’s Joan of Arc, who starts off as lowly shepherd girl Joan La Pucelle and appears to be from Yorkshire played with vigour by Beatriz Romilly. Plus you get all the stuff about the beginning of the War of the Roses, which, according to Shakespeare took place around a rose bush where everyone tried to out-rose-pun each other.

Nick Bagnall’s production shares the same relaxed openness, easy charm and accessibility that have become characteristic of Globe productions. It’s a venue where despite the faux-Elizabethan architecture, minimal scenery and historically-appropriate costumes, Shakespeare feels more contemporary than many modern day versions of the Bard’s plays and one that can take his ‘worst’ play and conjure up a gripping, funny, poignant piece of theatre.

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: Macbeth, Trafalgar Studios


James McAvoy as Macbeth

Jamie Lloyd’s production of Macbeth is the inaugural play in a season of work for Trafalgar Transformed at the Trafalgar Studios and it’s a brutal, intense, powerful and physical piece of theatre that’s restless and electric from the minute the three witches emerge from trap doors.

The ‘stage’ is a post-apocalyptic vision – all upturned metal chairs and utility tables; the characters in filthy army fatigues – in a non-determined time that could be the near past or near future. It was very 28 Days Later; the starkness adding its own neurosis to Shakespeare’s play about the occult and the blood-thirsty and power-hungry.

Shakespeare, of course, doesn’t need histrionics to stir the emotions and get the heart thumping, but the savagery of the newly configured stage and the physicality of this production sidelines the hocus pocus and brings out the bloodiness and horror behind the witches and ghostly daggers.

This has been billed as a James McAvoy vehicle, but it’s far more than that. If anything, McAvoy threatens to be overshadowed by both the powerful staging and the other actors. There’s been some debate (well, an article in The Independent) as to whether McAvoy is too young to play Macbeth. Shakespeare never specifies his age, but the character has traditionally been played by those in their late 30s or older. McAvoy – and his partner in crime Claire Foy as Lady Macbeth for that matter – might not be too young, but they look it, and their baby faces do make it harder to believe that these are two power-hungry tyrants who go around thrusting daggers through children’s heads. But while McAvoy might not quite convinced as a warrior, he does mad very well, writhing on tables and spitting out his demons with a rabid intensity.

Lady Macbeth has become shorthand for the ultimate malevolent wife, but she’s not purely evil. An ambiguous character, she’s a woman who begs to be bad, but ultimately isn’t bad enough – the last remaining speck of goodness is what ultimately leads to her demise. Still, she’s manipulative enough to persuade her husband to kill the King of Scotland while many women can’t even persuade their partners to make them a cup of tea so she’s no sweetheart.

The super slight Foy though, doesn’t look like a grand manipulator and I’m not sure whether it was her youthfulness that meant I didn’t quite believe in Foy as Lady Macbeth. A great angsty actress, Foy rather struggled to fill Shakespeare’s great villaness’ well-worn shoes, never quite seeming powerful and strong enough for a woman who could encourage her husband to commit regicide. For an actress who usually excels in shouty parts, Foy was at her best during the sleepwalking scene when she caught the vulnerability and fear of the Lady’s
nocturnal stirrings very movingly.

McAvoy and Foy were ably supported by a brilliant cast with standout performances from Forbes Masson as Banquo and Jamie Ballard as Macduff while Allison McKenzie’s brief turn as his about-to-be-murdered wife was eye-catching.

The screams of delight from the adolescents in the audience (of which there were many) is testament to the pull of a Hollywood star, but this is far more than a one-man show.

Macbeth is on at the Trafalgar Studios until 27 April 2013. For ticket information, including £15 Monday tickets, click here.

TV Review: Henry V, Shakespeare’s Globe and The Hollow Crown, BBC 2

ImageThere’s something truly special about Shakespeare’s The Globe, the Sam Wannamaker inspired theatre that sits like something from a model village on London’s South Bank, dwarfed by the modernist Tate next door.

Open to the elements, and London’s non-stop flight path, there’s no set, the costumes look like RSC cast-offs and the cast are (rarely) big Hollywood names. But within its circular walls, Shakespeare never sounds so alive, nor so relevant in these intimate surroundings. And the comedy, even in a blood soaked history like Henry V, always works so nicely as the actors play into the hands of the groundlings that stand transfixed in front of the stage . You do get a real sense of what it would have been like in Shakespeare’s day, with a (slightly) less stinky crowd and added helicopters.

The Globe’s Henry V season has just finished, picking off where it ended two years ago with Henry IV Parts 1 and 2. Henry V seems to be the big Shakespeare play of the year – Tom Hiddleston’s played the Prince turned King in BBC’s Hollow Crown series that ended this weekend while Jude Law (who was there doing some research the night I was there) is stepping into the breach later this year as part of a season of plays at Noel Coward Theatre.

At The Globe this season, Jamie Parker returned as the grown up Harry to lead the English army into battle under the shadow of Agincourt castle. It’s a stirring play that, as many commentators have noted, is particularly apt in this flag-waving year– but it has an emotional, almost moral, depth that both Parker and Hiddleston highlighted. Parker, perhaps wary of the big names who’ve gone before him took the bombastic element out of the big speeches. I quite liked this played down approach, and the BBC’s version took the same path with the ‘St Crispin Day’ speech, choosing to have Henry address an intimate crowd of Lords rather than the whole army. This more personal approach drew out the emotion, the horror of war, and highlighted the play’s Henry-as-a-normal-man theme that dragged the story out of history with a present day humanity.  But as good as the performances and staging were in The Hollow Crown, nothing quite beats watching Shakespeare under the stars with actors battling against the planes and elements.

by Suzanne Elliott