I watched all of this miniseries in the past two days. Please don’t judge me. The combination of Lucy Lawless and Jaime Murray was more than I could resist. (Ohhh and what a combination…) And it was actually kind of perfect for my cold-muddled brain.

And it may well be that I am biased, but I found this prequel series to be less terrible than the original Spartacus. They were, at least, somewhat less in love with their blood-spray effect, or else finally learned to use it in moderation.

I don’t have a lot to say about the plot or the acting (both were fine), but I did want to talk a little about the world-building. There was a variety of things on that front that I found intriguing.

On the one hand, this is a cable show, and it had the requisite gratuitous and excessive nudity, sexuality, vugarity and violence. On the other hand though, all of those things contributed toward constructing a society with radically different social mores and taboos than ours. Once it got past the shock value, it felt true in a way that the one episode of Spartacus I managed to sit through, with its endless slow motion sprays of blood, never did.

And it’s possible that the thing that felt most true about it, was that not once did any of the characters notice it, or wink at it, or reference it, or judge it. This was their world. And I was very much impressed by that acceptance.

I credit the writers for this. Particularly in the way they treated slavery. That, too, was a fact of life. And the slaves were able to take pride in their accomplishments and in the house that they served. But never once was it glorified. All the horrors of that position, that institution were shown in stark clarity. But that was the amazing thing. It was shown, not told. Never once did anyone whinge about their lack of freedom. There were no endless speeches about “one day I will be free.” And yet, as a viewer, you were always, always aware of the situation.

I just found it interesting to be shown: this is what life is like in the culture we’re depicting. (Never having studied the classics, I couldn’t tell you if it’s actually representative of life in the Roman Empire.) And to be shown this with absolutely no modern judgements imposed upon it. This is a rare thing, and I appreciated it a great deal.


I’m watching a show called Finding the Fallen on BBC Canada. Not a show I’ve seen before. It seems to consist of a team of archaeologists who dig in former war zones to find fallen soldiers who never got a proper burial.

The episode I’m watching centres around three German soldiers who were found in a field in Ypres, where they fought and died in 1914.

Having found these three boys, the archaeologists want to re-enact their journey from the training camp to the field where they died. Which, conceptually, is a wonderful idea. It is certainly bringing the lives of these boys to life and giving tragic context to the pile of bones that has been dug up.

What’s making me a little uncomfortable, though, is that the archaeologists are re-enacting this in costume.

Partly, I feel like this turns it into a game. Scholars playing dress-up. It lets them think they really know what it was like, and they cannot possibly. I feel like this cheapens it, somehow. Like they’re not showing respect.

But, also, part of me feels like it’s tasteless for British men, who were the victors in that war, to dress up in the uniforms of the army that lost and parade through the streets of a German town.

On the other hand, it has been more than 90 years since that war. No one who was alive then is around to see them and be offended. Is it purely history now? Or is it still too close for this to really be in good taste?

I’d be curious to know what other people think.

As expected from the title, this is a re-telling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, done by a group from Hackney in London. They brought the story into a modern world, where the mechanicals were police officers and construction workers, where the fairies were ‘invisibles’, the unheard youth. They brought in step, rap, hip hop, R&B. They made the story theirs in some very interesting ways.

The acting, on the whole, was not good – with Puck and the mechanicals (who were hilarious) being notable exceptions. The cast were talented singers and dancers, but they were not actors. And it wasn’t until the first mechanicals scene that they really engaged me, really got me in to their production. I’m told they’re an amateur group, so I’m not going to judge them for this, but I did end up with some time at the beginning to think about things.

And what I was thinking about was this: they took the play out of the original language. Now, I’m not a purist by any means. I don’t consider the text sacred. If you need to, by all means cut it the hell down. If you want to change fairies to invisibles, go for it. And, as a friend pointed out, they did change the name. They weren’t trying to claim this was Shakespeare’s Dream.

But. It makes me wonder… What are you saying when you keep the exact story, but take it out of the original text? Are you telling your audience you don’t trust them to be able to understand it? Or is it more important to get the story across and the text can come later?

Because I firmly believe that Shakespeare is understandable, if presented in the right way. For nearly two years I worked with a company that put on Shakespeare for high school students. We cut it down to two hours, because (due to bus schedules) that was all the time we had with the kids. We had young performers and we played it very broad. And the kids loved it. And they understood it. The language doesn’t have to be a barrier.

Thinking about it afterwards, I began to suspect that the cast were asked to put their parts into their own words and that the script came out of that. The most successful at it was Helena, who took her part right down into Essex girl and it worked perfectly. Some of the others ended up with dialogue that floated somewhere between Shakespearian and street talk, and it didn’t quite sit right.

As the show went on, though, more and more of Shakespeare’s text crept into the play in bits and snippets. I wonder if that was a deliberate choice, to introduce it slowly in as the audience comes further into the story, or whether it was the actors becoming more comfortable with the original text themselves.

There was so much that was good, so much that was new and fresh in this production. And the cast had so much passion for it, so much energy. And there was one moment where it all came together and showed me what it could become. Puck’s last speech. They left it entirely in the original text, and rapped it. It was awesome.

They have something wonderful here, and I think the next step would be to put it back into the original language and bring the rap and the hip hop and the R&B to that. Use the original text, but present it in a way that’s theirs. I would love to see that.

This was a show on the free fringe. My first attempt to see it was a complete and utter failure. I got to the venue to find that the show had started half an hour before the time I had read in whatever review.

I went inside, thinking I would watch it anyway, but couldn’t find the room. The only person in the foyer of this place was a company member from a different show. He had never heard of the show I was trying to see, had no interest in helping me find the room where it was on, and tried to convince me to see his show instead. No chance, buddy.

In the end I went around the venue and just stuck my head into every room, figuring if they can’t even organise one person who knows what’s going on, then they can deal with the interruptions.

If this had involved money of any kind, I would not have gone back. Since it was free, I tried again the next night.

The show was ok. It was an Aussie stand-up comic basically doing his riff on ‘isn’t the universe awesome’. Most of it was funny. It was also meant to be informative, but having absorbed a lifetime of science fiction, there wasn’t a lot he told me that I didn’t already know. The thing that tickled me most of all, though, was the very dirty joke that required a working knowledge of the whole Schrödinger’s Cat theory in order to be funny. That’s asking a fair amount from your average free fringe audience.

He finished up with some quantum physics stuff that just bends my brain. He was riffing with just a layman’s knowledge, and I was happy to sit and listen. As I was walking out though, all I could picture was Lexi ranting about how he had no idea what he was talking about and listing all the ways in which he was wrong.

Edinburgh Book Festival

I saw two events at the Book Festival this past week. One was a talk by James Shapiro, a Shakespeare historian. He was discussing his new book, Contested Will, which is broadly about all the theories concerning who wrote Shakespeare. Shapiro is firmly in the Shakespeare was Shakespeare camp, as am I. And I was hoping that his talk (and his book) were all about grinding the opposing theories into the dust. Not so, sadly. It was mostly about looking at the phenomenon itself, and trying to understand why people feel the need to put forth all these other theories of authorship. So there was also some talk about the history of literature and our approach to it.

Shapiro was interesting and entertaining. And he slammed the author of Will in the World, the first Shakespeare biography I tried to read, for exactly the same reasons that made me want to stab said author with a fork. So I felt vindicated.

I will probably still pick up Contested Will at some point. Shapiro has a very accessible style, and I’m guaranteed to learn a lot. I want to finish reading 1599 (Shapiro’s biography of Shakespeare that tries to understand who he was by examining in detail one year of his life) first, though. Shapiro also talked about his next book, 1606. Similar structure to 1599, but set later, while he was writing Lear and Macbeth. I’m looking forward to that one, but it won’t be out until 2016 (the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death), so I have a bit of a wait.

The other event was a talk by two university history professors, billed as being about everyday life in Scotland from 1600 to the present. The two professors were there, and their published books were about everyday life in Scotland, but they mostly spoke about the process of writing and publishing their books. This probably should have been obvious, but clearly I misunderstood.

They were relatively interesting, though. One of the professors had written about history from the political perspective, which was much less interesting to me. The other had actually edited a series of books about everyday life. He talked about how he and the other historians who worked on the books went about figuring out what everyday life was actually like, because no one at the time was writing about the mundane. That was quite interesting, and he mentioned a couple of books that I’ve been reading myself written by early travellers to the highlands.

In the end, though, I went to the festival bookshop and bought two books: The History of Everyday Life in Scotland from 1600 to 1800, and ditto for 1800 to 1900. I’m hoping to get from those what I didn’t get from the talk itself. I’m currently still mired in the introduction to the first one, but I’ll keep you posted.

The vibe at the book festival was very different from the fringe. Much more subdued, in one way, but with much more being elbowed and poked with umbrellas as people jostled to get a good seat. Particularly in the second talk I went to, I was the youngest in the room by a good thirty years, and the questions from the audience were both educated and stuffy.

This is possibly the most fun I’ve had at a show since I’ve been here. It’s the a capella singing group from Oxford university – read: twelve incredibly charming young men in blazers with stunning singing voices.

They sang a wide variety of songs, from Tom Jones to the Backstreet Boys (complete with choreography), from ‘Lion Sleeps Tonight’ to Lady Gaga. And their multi-part harmony rendition of Billy Joel’s ‘Lullabye (Goodnight my Angel)’ nearly made me cry.

And throughout the whole thing, all I kept thinking was ‘this is what Glee should have been like’. They traded off the lead with every song. There was no magical appearing/disappearing pianist. They created all the harmonies and back-up they needed among themselves, singing guitar parts, trumpet parts, whatever was necessary. And the only microphone onstage was traded between the guys doing the beat-boxing.

They had huge energy, wonderful charisma. They were funny. They danced. They made each other laugh. (At the start of ‘Poker Face’ they had to hold for a minute, because they kept corpsing, one after another.) They seemed charming and wholesome and just a little bit naughty, and had I been ten years younger, I would have been crushing madly on all of them. As things stand, I may have had my first cougar experience.

The audience were all essentially bouncing in their seats, they clapped along, and there were big cheers at the end of every song. It was just a huge amount of fun, and I didn’t want it to end.

It has marched past the front door of my workplace every night (and twice on Saturdays) since it began. It was wonderful to see, but also the worst kind of tease, because all the tickets were sold.

I managed to… acquire a ticket yesterday, though, with about 15 minutes’ notice. I joined the huge queue that snaked past our front door and actually got to go in and watch. And it was wonderful, despite the fact that it rained on us for about an hour and a half.

I fished an old map of Marrakech out of one pocket and a slightly newer one of Edinburgh out of another and sat on those to keep my bum dry. And while we weren’t allowed to put our umbrellas up, I did still have mine with me, so I opened it just a little and used it to make a tent over my knees to keep them dry. My raincoat more or less covered the rest. That and the fact that we were wedged in like sardines (my estimate was about 6000 people in there – they must make millions on this), which actually kept me reasonably warm, too.

They had giant torches, lit and flaming, along the ramparts of the castle, which made my romantic heart very happy. When the show began, there was a perfect line of drummers along the lower ramparts on one side, a line of brass players along the other, their scarlet coats glowing in the strategic uplight. They played the first notes and then the military band in the esplanade joined in. At the end of the number, all of the cannons in the ramparts fired off at once and then the massed pipes and drummers marched out through the castle gates.

The pipes and drums were probably my favourites, just because. There were also military bands from Poland, Jordan, and the United States. There were exhibitions of precision motorbike-riding from kids aged from 5 to 17. There was highland dancing, and a sword dance. There was a vaulting display from the military department of physical fitness (they all wore the goofy tank tops and shorts that look like they’re from the 1950s).

My favourite of the more traditional bands were the New Zealanders. Not only did they march in formation and play their instruments, they also danced, sang, performed a haka (the kama te!), then brought out a singer and performed a lounge act. It turns out even the kiwi army has a great sense of humour.

One of the British regiments (one of the really old ones – I think they said it had been serving for 310 years) tried to do something similar and played Robbie Williams’ ‘Let me Entertain You’. They didn’t quite get the tempo right or something, though, because it just wasn’t the same.

I thought it was good that they also brought out drummers from a unit recently returned from Afghanistan, dressed in desert camo. It’s helpful to remember that the military isn’t all about music and dancing and gymnastics. They did a very nice salute to the soldiers serving in Afghanistan and to those who have fallen. I could have done without the re-enactment of the soldiers on peace-keeping patrol, though, particularly since the ‘women’ in burqas were clearly rather burly soldiers underneath.

The last number brought everyone out onto the esplanade to play together. Very impressive. (There was one regiment that walked between the ‘aisles’ created by the ranks of other regiments, and I was convinced one of them was going to be taken out by a particularly enthusiastic cymbals player, but he got through without incident.) There was a lone trumpet (bugle?) player on the lower ramparts that played ‘Sunset’ and then the lone piper on the upper ramparts played as well.

And then everyone joined in as they marched off down the hill. The pipers were last, and they finally played my favourite song. I don’t know the name, but I could hum it for you…

Rosemary Kirstein

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